Earlier this month, Dennis Gingold, lead attorney in the 16-year-long Cobell lawsuit, sent a letter to nearly 500,000 American Indians nationwide saying they could see their individual $1,000 settlement checks as early as Christmas. The final chapter in the Cobell v. Salazar saga is nearing a close.
"When [Interior Secretary Ken] Salazar made a statement that the first payments would be going out before the end of the year, he made a statement to the other government officials saying, 'I want this to be done, and don't embarrass me,'" Gingold says. "That's why I feel confident."
Gingold's letter came in the wake of two appellate resolutions. On Oct. 29, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Kimberly Craven's settlement petition; Craven had also lobbied Congress to deny the $3.4 billion settlement. A few days later, three other individuals agreed to dismiss their own appeal.
Gingold considers those appeals baseless and "unconscionable." He's not sure why four individuals fought so hard against the settlement. What he does know is, as the settlement labored for three years in Congress and the courts, roughly 12,000 class members died. Among them was the lead plaintiff herself, Blackfeet tribal member Elouise Cobell, who died in October 2011 after a months-long battle with cancer.
The three-year delay has caused significant suffering in Indian Country, Gingold says. Gingold has received calls from class members "every single day"; he estimates he's spoken to thousands. He says there are beneficiaries who, even as they wait for a settlement check, can't afford a tank of gas or a square meal. About a month ago, he got a call from a beneficiary in Minnesota asking why the payments were so delayed.
"Then he burst into tears on the telephone," Gingold recalls. "He said, 'Don't you understand? I don't even have enough money to heat my house.'"