Landmark Case

Elouise Cobell

This month’s Osage newspaper leads with a story of the Cobell case, a landmark decision that impacts all tribes ethically and some tribes financially.

Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Nation of Montana, filed a class-action suit in 1996 claiming that “Individual Indian Money Accounts” (IIMAs) were mismanaged by the federal government. The suit was settled in December, with $3.4 million earmarked for return to Indians who had trust accounts, according to the Osage News.

Now, those with IIMAs are in line to receive a portion of the settlement. Some $60 million will be set aside for scholarships, $2 million to consolidate tribal lands, and $1.25 to IIMA holders. Any leftover or unclaimed money will go toward scholarships.

The lawsuit charged that the US Department of the Interior, which oversees Indian trusts, mismanaged the funds. As one of the nearly 5 million American citizens of Indian descent, I await information about how the lawsuit will unfold.

The federal government has long managed Indian affairs, believing, like all colonial settlements, that the natives cannot manage themselves. Not only does the government hold in trust Indian money, but natural resources including waterways and lands are managed by the feds on behalf of tribes.

I visited the US Department of the Interior in Washington DC over the summer. I wanted to see the place that issued my blood quantum card, which sends me letters occasionally that remind me of my heritage, and the place that manages by mother’s headright.

Like most federal buildings, you need to pass through metal detectors to enter, removing keys and coins from pockets and donning a visitor’s badge. This summer the building was undergoing repairs, refurbishing offices and getting ready for a new exhibit of photos of the west by Ansel Adams. There’s also a small gift shop where items made by tribal members can be purchased.

The place seems surreal: a behemoth of the building where transactions are made by non-Indians on behalf of Indians, ranging from decisions about how reservation dollars should be spent to what type of college major is appropriate for Indian students.

Hard to imagine that the great white father is still making our decisions for us.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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