A little over four years ago, the U.S. Department of Interior agreed to a $3.4 billion settlement in a landmark case alleging decades of government mismanagement of Indian trust accounts. The first of those settlement payments were finally made last year—two years too late to be celebrated by Blackfeet tribal member and lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell, who died in fall 2011. But as the New York-based claims administrator Garden City Group prepares to send the next round of checks in the coming months, the firm is still working to track down nearly 30,000 beneficiaries whom the federal government has been unable to locate. Approximately 728 of those are listed as members of Cobell’s own tribe.
Progress toward implementing the settlement has proven slow since Congress approved it in late 2011. Last summer tribal leaders in Montana and Wyoming were still voicing frustrations with the Interior’s foot-dragging on the $1.9 billion Land Buy-Back Program, an allocation established in the legal agreement to help tribes consolidate ownership of fractionated individual land allotments on reservations. The agency only announced its first land buy-back offers last month, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Washington’s Makah tribe became the second to sign a land buy-back agreement with the Interior this week.
According to the Interior’s updated Land Buy-Back implementation plan released in November, there are roughly 2.9 million purchasable fractionated acres on 150 Indian reservations nationwide. The agency says it’s unclear how many of the estimated 243,000 individual owners of those tracts will be willing to sell their land; two years have already passed in the program’s 10-year window.
As for the individual settlement recipients, the Garden City Group distributed the first wave of payments in 2013 and roughly 293,000 tribal members have already received at least some of their money. The firm’s priority now is locating the beneficiaries who are, in a sense, missing. Some might not even be aware they have an allotment that makes them eligible for a portion of the settlement. David Smith, the attorney representing the settlement's recipients, says the firm’s made significant strides in recent months. When it started tracking down the so-called Whereabouts Unknown last year, there were more than 60,000 individuals on the list.
“We literally get dozens of calls each day,” Smith says. “We’re finding over 1,000 [Whereabouts Unknown] a month.”
Yet the search continues for nearly 30,000 people, accounting for $32 million in settlement payments. Many of those are members of tribes in Montana. The 728 beneficiaries on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation are owed a total of just over $735,000. At Fort Peck, 900 are missing and set to receive more than $1 million. Those figures include individuals who aren’t technically listed as Whereabouts Unknowns by the Interior but have undeliverable addresses.
Garden City Group counts more than 2,000 others in Montana, spread among the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, Crow, Northern Cheyenne, Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy reservations, due more than $2.1 million.
The Garden City Group is primarily working to locate these people with the help of tribal officials. “That’s truly been the most effective way,” Smith says. The firm also oversees the Cobell settlement website, which currently has a page dedicated to helping account holders update their contact information.
That site highlighted another ongoing problem for the Cobell settlement last month. The Garden City Group issued a fraud alert to beneficiaries after an individual was contacted by someone claiming to be associated with the firm. The impersonator requested information about the individual’s personal bank account. As millions of dollars trickle out to tribal members nationwide, fraud and manipulation have become an increasing concern.
“This settlement can benefit you, your family and your communities, but we must all be aware of the potential negative impacts,” Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said in a public service announcement distributed to radio stations nationwide early last year. “Dishonest people know about the settlement and are figuring ways to take money from you. Be aware and be watchful.”
Many of the settlement recipients are trusting individuals, Smith says. They’ve been “shocked, surprised, when they learn that this person does not have their best interest at heart.”
Perhaps the most ironic twist in the problems still plaguing the Cobell settlement is that the flawed addresses can be traced back to the very mismanagement that prompted Cobell’s suit in the first place. The Individual Indian Money account data the claims administrator began working with came directly from the Interior—data the agency acknowledged lacked current mailing addresses for more than 83,000 accounts. Both the Garden City Group and the Interior’s Office of the Special Trustee are operating call centers for those who need to correct their information. Smith calls it the biggest vestige of the historic mismanagement of IIM accounts.
“Basically we inherited Interior’s data with all its problems,” he says. “One of the issues in the lawsuit was it was mismanaged and they didn’t know the location of a large number of people.”
This post was updated Wednesday morning to correct an error. David Smith is an attorney with the firm Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton representing the Cobell settlement's recipients.