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Settlement setbacks

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Browning resident and Blackfeet member Elouise Cobell is now well into her 15th year battling the federal government over money owed to individual American Indians, and what hope she had of an end is fading as critics continue to pick apart the multi-billion dollar settlement she landed late last year.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., cast a wide net over tribal governments across the nation in April, hoping to rally critics of the contentious Cobell v. Salazar settlement. His letter to tribal leaders outlined major changes to the historic legal agreement, and so far he's gained several significant supporters in Indian Country.

The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians last month submitted a letter to Barrasso agreeing with his proposed amendments. Then, on May 26, the Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association (GPTCA) drafted a resolution to the same effect during a conference in South Dakota. The documents underscore the increasingly complex views of the settlement among American Indians.

"We did not oppose or support the settlement," A. Gay Kingman, executive director of the GPTCA, says of the group's resolution. "What we did is try to get more funds in the hands of the landowners. We feel this is our responsibility, to try to get the landowners as much as we can for the wrongs that were done to them."

Barrasso's amendments include revisions to how portions of the $3.4 billion settlement will be handled, including the $1.4 billion in reimbursements for Individual Indian Money accounts mismanaged by the Department of the Interior. Specifically, he proposes setting aside $50 million as a reserve for any individual payments deemed insufficient and capping attorney fee claims for plaintiffs at $50 million.

The letters of support for Barrasso's changes shattered earlier sentiments that the settlement was the greatest political victory ever for American Indians, adding to a series of shakeups that have caused the case to drag on into 2010.

The most notable hitch—beyond Barrasso's criticisms—has been the U.S. Senate's continued inability to pass the agreement. Five congressional deadlines have come and gone since the settlement was reached in December, and the Senate now has until June 15 to cast a final vote. If not, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Dennis Gingold, has said his clients will likely renew litigation.

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