Friday, December 11, 2009

A Bittersweet Baby Step Toward Justice for Native Americans

By: Rachel Bevilacqua
Library of Congress photo 

CC BY 2.0

On December 8, 2009, a lawsuit that had been in litigation for 13 years finally ended with the largest settlement of its type in history, $3.4 billion.  Cobell v. Salazar was over at last.  Many in the media raced to paint it as a groundbreaking move for reconciliation of Native American human rights and tribal rights issues, but a deeper look casts doubts on that rosy assessment. 

Since 1996, nearly 500,000 plaintiffs have been asking for compensation for the devastating effects of the 1887 General Allotment Act, or Dawes Act, passed as part of an ongoing United States policy of "Americanizing" Native Americans.  Concerned with promoting the values of "real Americans" even back then, Republicans in Congress succeeded in privatizing tribal common lands.  Each qualifying tribe member was allotted ownership of a 40- to 160-acre parcel, and the extra tribal land left after allotment was simply sold off to the highest bidder.

Too bad if anyone in the tribe had been subsistence hunting and fishing on those unallocated lands or had a religious or cultural connection to them; the federal government determined those lands were superfluous to the new and improved tribal identity as property owners and shareholders.

The Cobell settlement will attempt to make up for this blatant cultural imperialism, and subsequent federal mismanagement of tribal funds, by spending $1.4 billion in direct compensation for plaintiffs and $2 billion to buy back tribal land sold off after privatization, hopefully letting tribes use their land for the collective benefit of all members as they did before the cultural "improvements" were made.  However, as President Obama stated, this is merely one step toward repairing the damage done by a Victorian-era Congress obsessed with imposing its own worldview on the Native population.

How helpful is this step?  An estimated 90 million acres of tribal land were lost in the aftermath of the Dawes Act.  The settlement hopes to be able to recover approximately 4 million acres.  According to Ms. Cobell's website, most plaintiffs can expect to receive about $1,500.  A nice little surprise windfall.  A bauble of compensation, hard won, to atone for a deliberate plan to eliminate hundreds of unique and vibrant traditional ways of life.

The significance of this decision depends on Washington's next steps in taking responsibility for settling America's debts, and paying meaningful restitution for the frauds and failed social experiments that have harmed so many for so long.  This decision was an historic achievement, but as Ms. Cobell stated, it's "a bittersweet victory, at best."

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