Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Cobell Legacy: Trust Settlements as Catalyst for Tribal Sovereign Wealth

TSW Community,

If you're not familiar with Elouise Cobell, you should be.

In 1996, Elouise Cobell filed a class-action lawsuit against the federal government (Interior and Treasury) regarding their mismanagement of trust assets on behalf of Native Americans.

In December 1999, along with the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), Cobell won a precedent-setting ruling that required the federal government to conduct an accounting of all funds held in trust.

In December 2006, NARF filed a class action lawsuit seeking an accounting of billions of dollars in tribal trust funds. The class action sought to represent more than 250 tribal government and coincided with several other individual lawsuits filed by more than 100 other tribes.

2006 was important as the statute of limitations to file trust accounting lawsuits expired on December 31, after the 109th Congress refused to extend it amid opposition from the Bush administration.

In late 2009, the Cobell case was settled for $3.4B, with $1.4B going to individual plaintiffs and another $2B going towards the repurchase of fractionated lands stemming from the Dawes Act.

Also in 2009, attorneys for many of the tribes wrote to President Obama and asked his administration to expedite settlement discussions. In April 2010, Obama administration officials, including then-Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli, met with the attorneys and started a settlement process.

In 2011, the Obama administration agreed to pay the Osage Nation (a tribe with significant oil and gas assets) $380M in a settlement. 

In 2012, the ball started rolling when the administration settled 41 tribes for more than $1B. At the end of 2012, that number increased to 61 tribes.

In 2014, the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations settled for $184M ($46.5M to Chickasaw, $139.5M to Choctaw). Navajo Nation also settled in 2014 for $554M.  Including the Navajo Nation the Federal government has paid more than $2.61 billion in settlement to 80 tribes.

The IRS has a running list of tribes who have settled their trust lawsuits.

Just as the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 helped capitalize 13 Regional Corporations and more than 200 Village Corporations with approximately 44 million acres and nearly $1B in cash (more than $6B in todays $$), the settlements enabled by Cobell have the potential to push Indian Country into a new era of self-sufficiency, self-determination and sovereignty.

Did your tribe negotiate a settlement via the Cobell legacy? How are these fund being invested? Let me know or just leave a comment!

In Perpetuity,

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