(Cobell lawsuit lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell addresses tribal leaders at a meeting at the Iowa Nation complex near Perkins, Oklahoma.)

(Editor’s note: The CPN Public Information Department has fielded several questions from CPN members who have heard about the settlement of the Cobell lawsuit over BIA mismanagement of funds in Individual Indian Money [IIM] accounts. Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the suit has written a series of letters to Indian Country in the few months since the settlement agreement was reached. This one, #9, seems to answer many of the questions posed to the CPN Public Information Department.)

Ask Elouise
April 19, 2010

Dear Indian Country,

This is the ninth letter in a series of open letters that I’m sending to Indian Country to answer questions you have asked me about settlement of the Cobell class action lawsuit. Prior Ask Elouise letters can be found on the settlement website: http://cobellsettlement.com/class/ask_elouise.php. We also have a “frequently asked questions” section while includes the most common questions we’ve received as well as questions and answers from prior Ask Elouise letters: http://cobellsettlement.com/press/faq.php. I can’t answer every question, but I will try to answer as many as I can every week.

The most common question I receive every week relates to whether someone is included in this settlement. Unfortunately, I do not have that information. The settlement agreement provides general guidelines (see also http://cobellsettlement.com/press/faq.php), but I also understand that many of you have unique or unusual circumstances, which make it unclear to me whether you are included in the settlement class. For those of you who still have questions, I recommend that you register to receive all Court-ordered communications to ensure you do not miss important information. There is no need to register if you are receiving a quarterly IIM statement. The Court ultimately will determine who is included in this settlement. Registration information can be found at the end of this and every Ask Elouise letter.

Many beneficiaries also have asked how they can contribute to a successful resolution of this case. I always have said that you need to call or write your Senators and Representatives in Congress to let them know how you feel about the settlement. We have now uploaded a form letter that you can update with your representatives’ information and send to them. This form letter can be accessed by clicking here: http://www.cobellsettlement.com/class/settlement.php Contact information for your representatives can be located here: http://www.congress.org/congressorg/officials/congress/. We need all the help we can get and your letters and calls to Congress are being heard. Thank you, in advance.

How can I, or my children, participate in the Scholarship Fund? The procedures have not been determined. The first step is to choose a recipient organization following the Court’s preliminary acceptance of the settlement agreement. The settlement agreement provides that plaintiffs identify two or three organizations that are capable of administering the scholarship fund. The Secretary of the Interior must select one of those organizations to administer the fund. You should also know that up to $60 million of the scholarships will be funded through the settlement agreement. This funding is tied to the Land Consolidation program, which must be completed within ten years. In other words, the Scholarship Fund may be not funded fully for ten years, if it is funded at all.

I know the government has breached its trust responsibility because I’ve lived with it every day, does this settlement mean that I can now trust the government to manage my land and money? Absolutely not. Prudent trust management is dependent on, among other things, effective systems, complete and accurate records, and competent staff. Today, they don’t exist. As a result, the government remains in breach of trust duties that it owes you as a matter of law. Never again should individual Indian trust beneficiaries blindly hope that the government and its delegates and agents manage their money or land. Make sure that you and your children hold government officials fully accountable and demand that they manage your assets prudently and solely in your best interests, not theirs. If this case has stood for anything, it is that you are entitled to know exactly what the government has done with your land and your money. Demand that information and make sure that government officials discharge their duties to you.

So, if the systems and information are not fixed, why did you settle? This was perhaps the most difficult decision I’ve had to make in this case. Nobody is claiming that the broken trust management systems are fixed or that tomorrow the IIM Trust will be managed prudently. That can’t happen without the appointment of a receiver. I’ve fought for almost 15 years to fix the trust, but I’m keenly aware that there are limits to what courts currently are willing to do. As a general matter, a court can’t spend money on better trust systems and won’t order the government to fire incompetent officials and hire five or 500 or 5,000 competent employees with trust experience. And, today, courts are unable to order unethical government officials to act ethically; much less, force incompetent employees to become competent. Judges aren’t magicians. I settled because the oldest members of our class are dying every day and they are entitle d to a measure of justice after waiting 15 years, and longer. This settlement is not perfect but it is an important first step. I am encouraged that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says that he takes trust reform seriously, as evidenced by Secretarial Order 3292 that establishes a commission on Indian trust administration and reform. We’ll judge him on what that commission actually accomplishes.

If you are not currently receiving an IIM statement from the government, please remember to register for correspondence over the Internet or by calling the number below.

Internet: https://cert.tgcginc.com/iim/register.php
Telephone: 1-800-961-6109

If you have a question, send an e-mail to askelouise@cobellsettlement.com. Otherwise, you can send me a letter to the address below. To expedite the processing of your letters our contractor has set up a post office box in Ohio, but I assure you this letter is coming from me and I will see your letters.

Ask Elouise
Cobell Settlement
PO Box 9577
Dublin, OH 43017-4877

Thank you and keep your questions coming!

Best wishes,
Elouise Cobell
Browning, Montana