January 22, 2017

S.E. RUCKMAN: The chatter on Cobell

Most want the lawsuit monies to be administrated and given out to the eligible recipients. Quick-like.  By Christmas would be nice.

Far away from the halls of Washington, D.C., the talk swirls. It bubbles like crude oil seeping up out of the soil. In nearly every single gathering of Indian folks I have attended in the past year, the dish on the settlement of the $3.4 million Cobell case abounds. It is a topic that needs no introduction; it is simply referred to as “Cobell” (even as the lead plaintiff watches from her heavenly perch).

Yep, the Cobell chatter is vehement and forceful, with all the good components of a lively argument. I went to a meeting of small American Indian businesses recently and breathed the word Cobell in passing. That’s all it took. I was amazed; this topic has more spark than a season finale of American Idol.

Folks, the regular Indians in their respective jurisdictions, have an opinion about this settlement. This may be the reason why we are sitting on needles with the latest appeal brought by a member of the 12, 925-member Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Tribe. Kimberly Craven maintains that the settlement is slanted and how it came to bear is disputable. That’s as nicely as I can say it, for right now. Courage comes in all forms and all envelopes.

To be honest, not very many individuals  I have run across are against the original settlement so badly that they wish for it to be resuscitated indefinitely. Most want the lawsuit monies to be administrated and given out to the eligible recipients. Quick-like.  By Christmas would be nice.

The average payee is likely to get under $2,000 (I fully expect to be in this company). Some may get more, depending. I know many who will exceed the average, but it’s a funny thing, money. I believe that money (lucre, cash, bread) is just a spiritual tool in the mosaic of our lives. How we react to it, how we react to a lack of it, all are mirrors to our soul.  Yes, the green stuff is indeed an intoxicating elixir.

But other issues at stake here pale beside the greater will of those who are part of the class action settlement. It was also for the benefit of every nameless or faceless royalty recipient that the lawsuit was filed. Eloise Cobell, who I interviewed on several stories, became the figurehead for what the lawsuit represented. It was the legal equivalent of establishing a healthy boundary with the federal government—we will not tolerate mistreatment willingly. She said it herself.

The original intent of the lawsuit should be mentally kneaded over as Indian Country watches a sideshow debate over lawyer fees and ethical epos. The well-being of the whole is the entire tenant of tribalism, the basic building block of our aggregate existence. Decisions in the old days were made solely on behalf of the safety of the women and children. We know this as fact.

Now, a judge will decide whether a recent appeal is solid enough to merit an about-face on the settlement.  I even read where there is an intense desire to appeal the settlement up to the Supreme Court. Such is the fervor on this payout and those who say nay are fairly strong.

But who can forecast whether going along with the Cobell settlement is a good or bad thing?  I was not personally in favor of the pennies-on-the-dollar settlement because the fiduciary ravaging of trust officials for over a century is calculated and heinous. Accepting seems like a betrayal of some form to every account holder since the first royalty was tallied.

With that said calling into question Cobell attorney fees seems extraneous. Maybe it is must-know knowledge. But I think Indian Country on the whole wants to see the distribution of the Cobell settlement.  If for no other reason than to establish it as history. That it may be somewhat of a revisionist version of history should come as no big shock to us. By now.

S.E. Ruckman is a citizen of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes in Anadarko, Okla. She graduated from the University of Oklahoma’s School of Journalism and has written for the Tulsa World and is currently a special contributor to the Native American Times. She is a freelance writer who is based in Oklahoma.