Thursday, March 26, 2009

Cobell Suit Likely Headed Back to Court

Native advocates who believed President Barack Obama would settle a long-standing lawsuit between the Interior Department and Native landholders say they're disappointed with the new administration.

Instead, Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar have expressed a need to settle the Cobell v. Salazar case in court rather than sit down and talk to Native landowners and negotiate a settlement.

“Salazar's out there talking, saying he wants to settle this case and putting false hopes into Indian people,” said Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the case.

“It's really a slam in the face,” she said. “Why is this administration taking this avenue? They have to live up to their trust responsibility and they need to talk to Indian people.”

Dennis Gingold, lead attorney in the 12-year-old case, pointed out Wednesday that Salazar is a trustee. “And he can't sit down and talk to the trust beneficiaries?” Gingold asked.

Interior spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said the department could not comment because the case is in litigation. Salazar, Barkoff said, “is sincere in trying to find a resolution to this case.”

Lawyers for the Interior Department as well as lawyers for Native landholders both filed successful appeals to the U.S. Court of Appeals immediately after a federal judge in August awarded a $455 million settlement regarding the department's mismanagement of the tribal trust fund system.

Cobell, who is from the Blackfeet Reservation, expressed disappointment with Salazar's decision to talk of settlement only after the case is heard in the Court of Appeals. Oral arguments are scheduled for May 11 in Washington, D.C.

“People in Indian Country are expecting a settlement,” Cobell said. “For him to say he can't work on a settlement until the Court of Appeals rules, well, the opportunity is now. Now is the time he needs to pull the forces and powers together.”

The Interior Department oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Office of Special Trustee, two agencies with significant oversight of Native issues. The department has been responsible for collecting and distributing money earned from natural resources on 11 million acres of land owned by Native individuals. The department's trust responsibility to Native landowners dates back to 1887.

Salazar initially provided hope about settling the lawsuit at a National Congress of American Indians gathering, said Cobell.

She said the Interior Department, as well as the Office of Management Budget and the Justice Department, all need to work to settle the case. “Certainly the Obama administration can call Justice and say, ‘Lay off. Pull off the dogs. We're going to stop this litigation.' ”

The Missoulian

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