Browning native Elouise Cobell won arguably the greatest legal victory ever for Indian Country last December, a $3.4 billion court settlement rectifying decades of mismanaged Individual Indian Money accounts by the federal government. Cobell told the Indy in January it was an uplifting conclusion to her 14-year battle against the Department of the Interior (DOI). She was looking forward to less travel, more time at home and eventual retirement.
Not so fast.
Last week, a freshman Republican senator out of Wyoming began stirring trouble for the historic Cobell settlement, which Congress must approve by May 28. John Barrasso, vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, openly railed against the $3.4 billion figure in a letter to tribal leaders nationwide. He questioned the fairness of the settlement, and called on tribes to do the same.
"Since it was announced last December there have been many questions asked about some aspects of the proposed settlement," Barrasso stated, before proposing millions of dollars worth of cuts to the deal.
Questions? From whom? President Obama all but demanded an end to the DOI's in-court stalling. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., both applauded the settlement. According to Cobell, even Barrasso had no complaints when she met with him personally in Washington, D.C., in early February.
"He only had some questions about the attorney, and he felt good about it when I left," Cobell says. "So I was blindsided by his letter."
Her only logical conclusion is Barrasso wants to "kill the deal." And his call for tribal leaders to weigh in is Cobell's smoking gun. This isn't a tribal government issue, she insists, but an individual account holder issue.
"What he's trying to do here is the oldest trick in the book," Cobell says, explaining Barrasso is likely pitting tribal leaders against tribal members. "It's called divide and conquer."
We can only assume Barrasso has the same revulsion to spending as a lot of his colleagues. We get it. The country needs to watch that gaping hole in its pocket, yada yada yada. But this isn't our money to bicker over. This is payment of a long-standing debt. Slashing the deal doesn't count as thriftiness. It's downright theft.
Barrasso's blatant attack on the settlement could have a ripple effect in Indian Country between tribal leaders and their members. And if he succeeds, he will deprive American Indians of money that is rightfully theirs.
Our court system has spoken, our nation's top leaders have chimed in. It's time for rabble-rousers like Barrasso to stop repeating the injustices of the past. Just let Cobell retire in peace already.