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Marietta Green works at the Blackfeet Eagle Shields Center for elders. The government, she says, “should not have committed fraud against my ancestors.” Photo by GWEN FLORIO/Missoulian

BROWNING - Frank Still Smoking is 76, an age where he's seen a lot of his contemporaries pass on.

They died, he believes, without receiving justice - in the form of money due them from the U.S. government for mismanaging royalty payments on tribal lands to the tune of billions of dollars over several generations.

This particular injustice might have been added to the seemingly endless list of offenses by the government against Indian people had it not been for the work of Elouise Cobell, who, like Still Smoking, is a member of the Blackfeet Nation.

Fourteen years ago, Cobell sued the government, demanding compensation for the hundreds of thousands of Native Americans defrauded of their money.

In December, after repeated setbacks, a $3.4 billion settlement in Cobell v. Salazar was announced. It was described as one of the largest class-action lawsuits in history. Indian Country celebrated.

And then - nothing.

The settlement, which needs congresssional approval before the money can be distributed, has faced one delay after another, most recently on Thursday night, when Senate Republicans used a filibuster to kill the jobs bill to which the settlement was attached.

"It's just a wait-and-see game now," a weary-sounding Cobell said in a telephone interview Friday. "We were so disappointed and disheartened this didn't get approved because it affects so many people's lives."

In Browning, 2,200 miles away from the political power games in Washington, Still Smoking wonders if he'll end up like his friends, dead before he ever sees a penny of the money due him.

***

The euphoria surrounding the settlement began fizzling almost immediately.

The original agreement called for $1.4 billion to go to as many as 500,000 Indian people with land held in trust by the government, $2 billion for the repurchase and consolidation of Indian lands fragmented over generations, and $60 million in Indian education scholarships.

Criticism focused on two aspects - the total, which Cobell admitted fell far short of the $40 billion more realistically owed Indian people. But, as she said when the settlement was announced Dec. 8, in a statement that could have been spoken directly to Still Smoking, "There's too many individual Indian beneficiaries that are dying every single day without their money."

Still, some individuals and tribes - notably some of the Sioux tribes in the Dakotas - voiced doubts about the settlement. Others said they were uncomfortable with the hefty attorneys' fees that could result from 14 years of work on the case. A Facebook page, "Reject the Cobell v. Salazar Agreement," had 397 members this week.

A deadline for congressional approval passed. Then another. And yet another. Cobell and her attorneys launched a town meeting-type tour around Indian Country, hoping to ease people's concerns. They set up a website, CobellSettlement.com, with a weekly Ask Elouise column to address questions about the agreement.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R.-Wyo., vice chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, introduced an amendment to cap attorneys' fees at $50 million. Cobell - with the backing of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder - objected, saying any changes to the settlement could scotch the whole deal.

All the while, people like Marietta Green watched as the weeks, and then months, spooled past and tried not to despair.

***

Green, 52, works in the Blackfeet Eagle Shields Center, a home for elders on the Blackfeet Reservation. She herself is due some of the settlement money, as are the people she cares for every day.

Initially, she exulted in the settlement, Green said as she slowly wheeled 71-year-old Mary Bird past the tepee that dominates the home's large central court.

The government, she said, "should not have committed fraud against my ancestors. No matter how uneducated the Indian was 100 years ago, what made them think he was not going to be educated now?" she chortled. "Did they really think they would get away with it?"

Bird sat silent in her wheelchair as Green and Shirley Johnson, 73, discussed the likelihood of the case being resolved in their lifetimes.

They agreed that it probably would be but, as Johnson said, "I don't think we're going to see it soon."

Bird shook her head.

"I doubt we will ever get that money," she said.

***

It's not a lot of money, only an estimated $1,000 to $1,500 for most people. Not a lot, that is, unless you live in Browning.

Phillip Many Hides, 44, is a firefighter who hasn't had much work this cold and wet spring. This week, he was hoping for a call that would send him to fires in Louisiana.

"If this money came in, it would help a lot of families," he said.

Unemployment on the Blackfeet Reservation ranges as high as 70 percent, depending on the season, and the numbers are depressingly similar on many reservations - a fact Cobell emphasized when the settlement was announced.

Earlier this month, Blackfeet Tribal Chairman Willie Sharp Jr. fired off a letter to the National Congress of American Indians, castigating members for their doubts about the settlement and warning them not to back the Barrasso amendment. Several other tribes followed suit.

"Where were all these armchair Cobell authorities 15 years ago?" Sharp asked Wednesday. "Why didn't they do something then? She was the only one" to take action.

***

Before Thursday's Senate vote, Cobell herself was feeling more optimistic than she had in some time. The NCAI, meeting this week in Rapid City, S.D., had just agreed to support the original settlement - without the Barrasso amendment - and urge its quick approval.

"A lot of people have died waiting for this," Cobell said Wednesday in a telephone interview from Rapid City.

All that remained was the Senate approval (the House has already signed off) and President Barack Obama's signature.

But after the vote on the jobs bill was blocked Thursday, Cobell said she was awaiting word from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., via Montana Sen. Max Baucus.

"We have to see what their strategy is," she said Friday, "whether this is being considered a dead bill, or they're considerating peeling off portions" and going forward with them.

July 9 is the most recent deadline for approval of the settlement. Before Thursday's debacle, Cobell had hoped people could start getting their checks by the end of the year.

"Congress has so many things on their plate," she said, "and we're just a small piece."

So Cobell, who has fought for 14 years, is gearing up for one more battle.

"I'm going to remind them," she said, "of the importance of this to Indian people, that their lives depend on it. Indian issues are always at the bottom of the barrel."

This time, she said, those issues need to rise to the top and stay there just long enough for that crucial Senate vote.

"And then," she said, "my work will be done."

Missoulian city editor Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, gwen.florio @missoulian.com or at BuffaloPost.net.

 

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