January 17, 2017

Cobell settlement: So close, yet so far

As a slice of American justice, the serving account holders get in this is porridge to say the least.

The White Dot Cafe floats in and out of my memory like heat waves on a county road. Located in downtown Anadarko, Okla., it had two screen doors. One in the front when entering and one by the back door that led to the alley by the kitchen.

My grandma loved the White Dot, which can be best described as a real greasy spoon. My big sister and I used to go into town with her by cab for weekly shopping trips. Eventually, we'd walk into the White Dot or maybe the old Rexall's across the street.

We had a regular order at both. At Rexall's, it was grilled pimento cheese sandwiches and old-fashioned limeades. It would be open-faced roast beef sandwiches and soda in the White Dot.

Funny, I can still recall the tangy pimento spread seeping out of two pieces of buttered white toast. And the open-faced beef sandwich at the White Dot was always crowned by a dollop of mashed potatoes and drowned in brown gravy. All the while, one of the screen doors could be heard creaking in the background.

Those visits were usually made after a green U.S. Treasury check came in the mail. Now, we are watching the federal government attempt to finalize a class-action lawsuit, Cobell vs, Salazar, for mismanaging Indian trust funds-simply referred to as the Cobell case.

The Cobell case is one of those instances in history where the offense is so incredible as to be unbelievable. The very idea that a trust responsibility was so openly violated is sobering, like the realization that one's step-parent cares nothing for you.

I have written about the case and interviewed Eloise Cobell at one point. Moreover, I receive press releases from her camp from time to time that allow me to keep up with this historic litigation. I read them all and watch the process in a way that I liken to riding up to a mountain on horseback.

That is to say, one may set out for the mountain. But the destination never bids you a welcome. Of course if you don't give up and make it, it will remain remote, impassive and dispossessed of the strain levied upon you. It's remarkable how close, yet so far we are in the process.

A new deadline for the settlement was set for June 15. Then July 9. With five extensions in the settlement process, it stalls out on the Senate level. A settlement will create a $60 million Indian Education Scholarship fund. Settlement provisions were attached to the house bill, H.R. 4213, known as the American Jobs and Closing Tax Loopholes Act of 2010. Most recently, it hooked up with a supplemental war appropriations bill in H.R. 4899.

Congressional finger-pointing (Democrats blame the Republicans and vice-versa) has rendered a timely settlement elusive. Further political dickering could mean additional costly litigation, case officials said. Ms. Cobell has maintained she backs the oft-orphaned legislation as is. Her people tell me that this battle is not over yet. After nearly 15 years, Indians are ready to gallop on up to the mountain.

I consider one tribal leader who lamented the number of elders who would die before the first check ever hit the mail. Nonetheless, the Obama administration backs a $3.4 billion end to this century-old debacle. From that, I read somewhere that each account holder could receive up to $1,500.

Included in that sizable number of account holders is my mother and her four siblings who inherited my grandmother's allotment land in Southwestern Okla. They will be among an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Indians with a share of lands held in federal trust. That is a lot of U.S. Treasury checks.

As a slice of American justice, the serving account holders get in this is porridge to say the least. Some say the settlement is arbitrary, with some getting the same as others while others deserve more. But in a class action suit, the mechanics are logical. What's crucial is the important open acknowledgement that the federal government betrayed (yet again) their responsibility to people they are entrusted to protect.

With her checks, my grandma would buy us school clothes, summer sandals or Easter dresses. We'd land a few candy bars if we were really lucky. And we'd inevitably walk through the doors of the White Dot Cafe (which has long since gone to Diner Heaven).

Those days can never be regained. And neither can the elders be brought back whose royalties these rightfully are. The Cobell case makes me hungry and thirsty in a way that can't be satiated. No matter how many green checks go out in the mail.