FORT HALL — A $3.4 billion settlement for Native Americans signed into law by President Obama last month and judicially approved last week marks the culmination of long-standing litigation over the royalties from property owned by Indians and held in trust by the government for decades.
But the settlement may not result in money being distributed to deserving individual beneficiaries for some time, according to a local woman.
Ernestine Werelus, founder of the Fort Hall Landowners Alliance, was a witness for the plaintiffs in Cobell v. Salazar, a class-action lawsuit brought by Native American representatives against the U.S. government over mismanaged accounting of Indian trust assets. The plaintiffs sought relief in the form of a complete historical accounting of all Individual Indian Monies accounts.
“It’s a long-standing, bittersweet settlement and I don’t know that the people here are really going to see a lot of benefit from it, or if the government’s going to shape up, so to speak, to do a better job,” Werelus said. “I wouldn’t get too excited.”
Part of the settlement is set aside to allow the federal government to purchase fractionated lands — division of parcels between heirs upon the allottees’ deaths — to then give back to the tribes as a land base. That troubles Werelus.
“I don’t know if that will ever happen, because it hasn’t happened in the past,” Werelus said. “Our reservation is quite fractionated. There’s only a very few people that own total pieces anymore.”
Werelus said records on reservations were poorly kept in most instances, due to the record keepers’ lack of proper methods. The BIA did little to improve the situation when it took over the recordation.
“Essentially what the BIA did was they started collecting records off of all the reservations to centralize them, but in a sense what they were doing was destroying them,” she said.
Werelus said she started the Fort Hall Landowners Alliance in response to the very problems which were highlighted during the Cobell litigation.
“I started that organization in 1996-1997, because I saw so much injustice going on right here locally about leases and fractionation,” she said. “I was one of the witnesses (in the Cobell trial) about what happened here in Fort Hall.”
It’s been speculated that the number of Native Americans who are eligible for part of the settlement may number as high as 600,000, making it potentially the largest class action settlement in U.S. history.
However, the estimates fluctuate greatly, highlighting, perhaps, the holes in existing records regarding individual land ownership.
Werelus said Cobell plans on sending brochures and materials for posting around the reservation to inform people “how this is all going to pan out.”
Regardless of the outcome, Werelus has high praise for Elouise Cobell, a Blackfoot tribal member from Browning, Mont.
“I give her a standing ovation, because we are indebted to that lady. She’s a fighter, and you have to be a fighter to take on the government. That’s not an easy chore. The government’s got deep pockets.”