MISSOULA — When Elouise Cobell finally decided to sue the U.S. government for mishandling a century’s worth of trust income it held for Indians, she thought the lawsuit might last three years. In two months, the case that bears her name will have been in the court system for 10 years.
Although some of the issues have been resolved, the case is nowhere near resolution, Cobell said Friday during an appearance in Missoula.
“There have been 17 decisions in this case, and we’ve won every one of them,” Cobell said. “But the government still delays this case at every chance. … They will try every trick that you can believe.”
The most recent delay involves an effort by the government’s attorneys to remove U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth from the case. The judge has offered up some harshly worded rulings against the government, but Cobell said the judge’s rulings have simply reflected the government’s overwhelming malfeasance in handling the Indian trust accounts.
“If this had happened in the private sector, there would be people in jail,” Cobell said on the final day of a Blackfeet-sponsored conference focused on racism in towns bordering Indian reservations. “If other people’s money was handled this way, people would be in jail. … They would be closed down in a New York second.”
Estimates have placed the actual loss of money owed to Indians through their trust lands at about $13 billion, but with interest the bill is closer to $175 billion to $200 billion. Cobell said it’s unlikely the case could be settled for anywhere near that amount, but she has proposed a figure of $27.5 billion as part of an effort by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to legislate a settlement in the case.
The suit was filed on behalf of about 500,000 Indians who were entitled to trust payments from natural resource-related royalties accruing from use of their land. The U.S. Department of Interior was supposed to keep track of the money and make payments, but it failed to do so. Cobell agitated for years about the failed trust and finally turned to the legal system after a meeting with officials from the U.S. attorney general’s office made it clear that the government had no interest in setting things right.
Cobell, who is now executive director of the Native American Community Development Corp., said filing the case filled her with dread.
“I said, ‘This is the U.S. government that you’re suing,’ ” she recalled. “I called a friend and told her I just didn’t think I could do it. And she said, ‘If you don’t do it, who will?’ “
And that was the message Cobell sent on Friday. She urged conference attendees to write their congressional representatives and urge a resolution to the lawsuit.
“The only way to get this done is if we stay right there in their faces,” she said.
This article first appeared in the Billings Gazette