Why I Opted Out of the Cobell Settlement

Jerilyn DeCoteau

Ten Cent Treaty, Le Pay, allotments in Montana, lease checks the neighbors received, Grandpa saying, "I am still waiting for my allotment." These are words I grew up with.

They were full of import and mystery, and stood for things eternal. I heard the grown ups say them, talk about what they stood for, speak of them as in the very distant past, in the future and very far away, but never as here and now.

The proposed Cobell settlement has brought allotments and lease money issues to the forefront. And, although the waiting is over, I could not stop myself from opting out of the settlement.

On one level, it doesn’t matter much because there is little money in my trust account, meaning my grandmother’s allotment was either not worth much or was leased for far below its value. Or possibly oil was drained and we were never told. How would we know? We never saw the land; the allotment is 300 miles from home.

Exactly what happened to her allotment is what the litigation called Cobell was supposed to determine, or so I thought. But, after 12 years and hundreds of millions of dollars spent I know little more now than I did before. My decision to opt out rests in good part on what I still don’t know. Besides, as my mother told me, if it doesn’t feel right in your gut, then don’t do it. This settlement just doesn’t feel right.

Growing up I heard stories that my grandmother had an allotment 300 miles away in Montana, which she went to live on for one harsh winter before returning to the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. Her family could not make a living there. Her allotment didn’t have a road to it. It was on the public domain and not near any other allotments. It was non-arable. And besides, it was lonely. Her home and family were in the Turtle Mountains. I also heard more than once that she did not get the allotment originally assigned to her. They said it was because minerals were found on it. So they gave her another, less obviously valuable selection. Apocryphal? I know only that these are the stories that went through the family and down through the generations and fell on my ears again and again. I believe them. They are our stories. In any event, now, a century later, these stories no longer matter. Or do they? Certainly, after Cobell, these stories will no longer hold the same meaning as they held for my grandparents, parents and me.

My interest is apparently small, worth about $500 according to the Cobell proposed settlement—possibly increasing to $800 as a result of moving $100 million from the land consolidation fund to the administration fund. But it’s not just about the money. Here’s why it matters to me.

All my life—since I was old enough to realize what a reservation is, what it means to me and my family, to all Indians—I felt cheated. In the BIA school I graduated from I felt cheated that there was not one book on Indians in our library. I asked, and the librarian led me to War and Peace. Yes, it’s true. Even then, I knew something was not right, but also felt shame and disappointment that we, Indians, were not important enough to have books about us in our school library. I felt cheated that we did not learn a single thing about being Indian, the Turtle Mountain Chippewa, or the tribal government, whose offices stood next to the school. I felt cheated that we did not hear or speak the languages (Cree and Ojibwe) my mother knew exclusively until she was taken to boarding school at age 6, where she stayed through age 12 and where she was taught to unlearn being Indian. She remained fluent, but taught us very little. Why? Although I well know the answers, I still have to ask, because not to will let something important, and eternal, die.

I felt cheated that we did not have land—allotments. Only the older folks did, but most of them did not live on their lands because they were hundreds of miles away. They could only talk about it—and le pay, the 10¢ an acre pressed on the Tribe for giving up ten million acres of our homeland. This iniquitous compensation was the subject of an Indian Claims Commission case for unconscionable dealings that ended in a $52 million dollar judgment. Each of us, who were eligible, received less than $2,000 for our birthright. Those born after 1972? Kaput. Anisha. The two grand? It went … well, that is a tired old story, and everyone knows the ending.

Let’s just say, I felt cheated again as I held in my hand a small piece of paper with $1,800 and some odd change written on it next to my name. It was a sorry sight, a weightless exchange for the heaviness in my heart for all it represented—my homeland, my heritage, my birthright (things eternal), my future, and my children’s future. The piece of paper floated to the floor—before I picked it up, took it to the bank and cashed it. I had only enough to help my daughter buy a used car to get back and forth to college. I don’t remember the car. It probably got beat up on the rez roads and, like most things Indian, had a shorter life than it should have.

The Turtle Mountain Reservation was allotted (against the Tribe’s wishes), but there was not enough land on our small 6 by 12 mile reservation for everyone in our large tribe to have an allotment, so allotments were made on distant public lands for our tribe members to use as homelands and on which, with which, they were to make a life and a living for themselves. No apparent thought was given to whether the lands were suitable for their intended purpose, or even to how the Indians would get to their lands.

Allotments that were not habitable, or were too far away to be considered seriously as homelands, were leased and minerals sold by the federal government for "benefit" of the Indian owner. Leases were made without knowledge or permission of the Indian owners, without any information as to the resources being harvested, mined or grazed, without information as to who the lessees were or about the value or terms of the leases, and, as we know from Cobell, without any proper accounting for the money that went through trust accounts, or that should have gone through the accounts. (How can they account for the money from the allotment taken away from my grandmother and from the one my grandfather didn’t get?)

I feel cheated because my grandmother was cheated and her heirs were cheated and cowed by the very lack of information, by the lack of answers when questions were asked, cowed into believing we had little or no right to ask about our interest in her allotment. This is one of reasons I opted out: I still don’t know what resources are on the allotments (there are 3) that I have interests in. To say on quarterly statement, which have miraculously appeared in recent years, that the land is leased for “business purpose” or “agriculture” tells me very little. The point is, these leased lands are the source of the trust accounts that are the subject of Cobell and I still don’t know enough about the value of my interests to make an informed decision about whether to agree to settle.

I do know that I continue to feel cheated. My family has never benefited in any meaningful way from our allotments. Now some 110 years later, I have the offer of another paltry piece of paper with a few small numbers typed on it. What am I supposed to do with $500? What would you do? What would you do if you didn’t feel so powerless and like you deserved at least something, even if it is this silly amount called a "settlement"? My daughter pointed out the plain reality, "There are poor people who would gladly take $500, a month’s worth of fuel oil [in a cold North Dakota winter], or a couple of week’s groceries in exchange for a piece of land they will never see and have no money to ever see."

The fact is, the settlement will make no real difference in the lives of most account holders and can hardly be considered justice in any real sense of the word. It is just a way to put an ugly chapter in American history to rest for the perpetrators, while conveniently ignoring that it is largely a meaningless act for most Indians.

It is not a meaningless exercise, however, for those few who stand to reap large benefits despite the very fact that the suit failed in it essential mission: most trust account holders still don’t know any more about how our lands were mismanaged. Even after 12 years of litigation and hundreds of millions of dollars spent, we still don’t know. But when the few get their big money, the rest are expected to walk away happy with the equivalent of a peanut.

I am not complaining about the named plaintiffs or lawyers in this case. They undertook a noble and heroic mission, though it proved impossible. They went forward, I believe in good faith, with the vision and strength of the best warriors of any Indian nation. They did what they could, but like Red Bear, like Chief Joseph, like Sitting Bull, like Geronimo, like Black Hawk, like Red Cloud, like Louis Riel, like Ira Hayes, like so many good warriors (men and women) trying to make a living and a life on our reservations and from our allotments, it wasn’t enough, it is not enough. They could not turn the tide of history or turn aside the bands of thieves wanting to hand Indians trinkets for their eternal treasures. Still, I honor them, although I can’t help begrudge the real money they will get. And I can’t help but wonder if the large amounts didn’t entice them to "opt in" for all of us.

But again, that is not why I opted out. With the Cobell settlement, I feel like I am standing between "eternity" and a hard place. Some things you just have to hold on to no matter what. Five hundred dollars, on the other hand, is meant to be let go of. Like my grandfather waiting for his allotment, I will likely die waiting to know the truth, but better to wait than to give up on what is right.

Jerilyn Monette DeCoteau is a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa. She is on hiatus in her 27 year practice of Indian law. She has three children, six grandchildren and two great grandchildren. She lives in Eldorado Springs, Colorado with her husband, Tod Smith, and son.

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beaver's picture
Re: “There are poor people who would gladly take $500, a month’s worth of fuel oil [in a cold North Dakota winter], or a couple of week’s groceries in exchange for a piece of land they will never see.” This is the Federal strategy: Keep them poor, desperate and starving, so those savages will sign off all their land for a penny.
beaver's picture
Take it from an old Indian who just returned to America after spending an entire year with the Kayapó people. (The Kayapó tribe lives in Brazil's northern Pará province and I spent a whole year with them, 14 month and 3 days to be precise. Their land is a beautiful tropical rainforest near the awesome Xingu river. I heard wisdom from their tribesmen and from their Chief Raoni Txucarramãe. And I can see how their current existence relates to our past existence). The one word of advice I have to offer to young Indians today is: We are making the GRAVEST mistake the moment we sign off our land to the colonial government.
aparsons's picture
Uh huh...My father, Neil, is an enrolled Blackfeet tribal member, and is apparently slated to receive a similar token amount, if he decides to 'opt in' to the 'settlement'...I'm still not sure that he has decided to opt in...he doesn't seem very excited about it, and after reading Jerilyn DeCoteau's article, I think I know why not.
zelbe1's picture
Cobell represents more than a few dollars more for those that accept the payment. It represents an acknowledgement of past and present continued unaccountability of monies never paid to native peoples in exchange for land treaties and agreements to protect and make available natives to live as soveriegn entities. In truth, the BIA was created as an agency mediator between the Indian people and the US government to ensure no corruptions and unaccountability could be spared, but the BIA has only become this huge collective corrupt Indian agent that actually stands in the way of native soveriegnty. I say there was a time that the BIA served some purpose in achieving its mission, but I say now is the time to rid ourselves of this barrier agency that more often than not, serves the federal governments mandates rather than the Indian people. I recieve small payments from a big oil company, but I want to stop renewing the lease. It is hard to do when you have 40 other people that cannot and will not come to a collective agreement and you can be outvoted if a majority of other landowners continue signing the lease. American Indians should be the wealthiest people in the US, but thanks to an even greedier and more scheming adversary, non-natives get offended and turn into communist when they see natives prosper or gain some level of equal financial success, claiming unfairness and loopholes for natives economic development progress. I agree that no more Indian land should be sold or end up in the hands of non-natives, US government especially, but I also believe that one has the right to keep their lands and accept the Cobell Settlement without giving up those lands.
iimaccountholder's picture
I opted out of the Cobell settlement for your reasons and many more. Mainly, because we are still being cheated by the Government and they said that’s alright with them so here’s $1,500 and shut up. Basically, the Cobell was to fix the broken Indian trust system and do an accounting of all funds no matter when deposited and neither was done. The benchmark year was 1887 when the U.S. forced them into our land and money business by the Dawes Act of which we had no participation. In my opinion, the Cobell settlement was forced on us by the U.S. Their strategy was to keep it in court forever costing multi-millions, hope that we all die, instill fear that we will receive nothing and still pay the bills. The U.S. had an endless taxpayer’s budget to defend their century’s mismanagement and theft. Our allotments stories are many. Dawes allotment is a weapon of mass destruction. Its disguise was for us to be a rich farmer without resources but its intent was to rid us of our lands, drive us into the cities, be tribally terminated and it partially worked. Dawes took control of our natural resource rich lands and money business. Dawes made non-Indians rich. Dawes gave away our land to encroaching settlers because the U.S. was homeless. Dawes destroyed our lands by non-existing trust and federal budget neglect so we couldn’t live on it and forced to leave. Dawes caused forced Indian land sales and foreclosure on accountholder loans that created checkerboard reservations with non-Indians. Dawes is silent Individual Indian termination. There is more to tell but not now. If you followed the Cobell Lawsuit in the Judge Lamberth court since 1996 you would not believe the historical, countless actions of government hate for Indians. To understand the federal problem with Indian Affairs, you should read the Lamberth court orders, opinions, testimonies and investigative reports. These documents are great legal history of federal terrorism. This should leave you no doubt that Ms. Cobell is truly a heroine and modern day warrior. With our own money and promised federal funds, we could have been a national corporate business partner administering our own natural resources with the U.S. without the broken trust burdens you hear and see today. We can sell our products to the U.S. just like foreign countries and big energy companies at market prices. This money would stay within the U.S. and we can use them just like our Casino profits. We are still being cheated. The broken Indian trust system was never fixed according to the U.S. Courts. The Government will tell you it’s fixed but it’s not. The government spent more money, multi-billions, in an appearance of trust reform then the settlement award. During the Cobell era or the government trust reform era, I witnessed government actions totally un-American in its morals and belief system. I was not in the Courtroom but in the government as an employee. Although I lived in an allotment house on allotment land and participated in most federal programs of forced assimilation and failure, the government felt I was not best suited to fix the broken trust. I am a plaintiff and defendant. I was an American citizen and an Individual Indian Accountholder. Just like the Dawes Act, I was considered a conflict of interest and gradually not allowed in resolving the historical broken federal trust problem. As recorded in ageless federal investigations, educated and government experienced persons, and sometimes not, with no institutional or historical knowledge of Indian Affairs were hired to fix the broken trust. This hiring pattern can be called the corrupt Indian agent syndrome because it is so historically consistent and planned. There were so much hate Indian actions done during the trust reform era that it all cannot be said in this article. Who doesn’t know that the U.S. is still cheating Indians? Research and read the countless government investigations of inherent corruption in Indian Affairs. We can fight wars on opposite side of the world and win. We can go to the Moon and Mars and back. We can go to the deepest depth of any ocean and surface. We can clone animals and maybe humans. We can chase terrorists forever until captured or killed. But we can’t fix the broken federal trust system for American Indians. Another well known lady Judge in Indian Affairs commented that the settlement benefits the government and Tribes more than the Individual Indian. The Tribes should have been more involved in the Cobell and wasn’t because the tribal trust and Individual Indian trust is the same, needed to be fixed and neither was done. Yes, I opted out. If there ever is another Cobell type class action lawsuit, I want to give them the same information to the Courts that put the U.S. in contempt of court for numerous citations of a thief under oath. Others have supplied information to fix the broken trust to the government but that renders fruitless. Most employees witnessed contributors being forced out of service so the message is to keep the dishonest and ignorant and get rid of the rest. The government does not want to fix their broken federal trust problem with Indian Affairs and that has been proven numerous times. Well Ms. DeCoteau you are not alone. Once the June 20 hearing is over and the settlement is approved then what? It is also my opinion that the Cobell Legal team should be paid what they request. I just wish that it should be new money and not from the proposed. This lawsuit took on the U.S., the most powerful country in the world and of all times. Do you have more money than the U.S.? Thomas M. Wabnum IIMAccountholder@comcast.net Prairie Band Potawatomi BIA/OST retired
xxariochxx's picture
Are you kidding me cobell a hero she just sold every indian down a hole for her 25million dollars she going to recieve.

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