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Shannon Dininny and FeliCIA Fonseca Associated Press Writers
Published: 01 June 2010

Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana


YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) -- Shirley Butterfly DeVolve inherited 52 acres on Montana's vast Blackfeet Indian Reservation when her father died in 1980.
The problem is, a part of an acre is on this ridge, a fraction of an acre in that valley, one-hundredth of an acre here and there. Dozens of relatives own tiny adjacent parcels, making it difficult for anyone to use or sell the land.
DeVolve, 57, has a map of the parcels, much of it leased for decades by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to private interests for cattle grazing. But the federal government -- which serves as trustee for some 56 million acres of land owned by tens of thousands of American Indians and Alaska Natives -- seldom sent checks, DeVolve said.
She remembers her father, Charles Butterfly, asking when she was very young, ``Where's our money?''
That question went to the heart of the massive class-action lawsuit against the federal government has dragged on for 14 years before resulting in a $3.4 billion settlement that the U.S. House of Representatives approved Friday.
Filed by lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell of Browning, Mont., in 1996, the suit represents between 300,000 and 500,000 Indian landowners in almost every state.
The settlement must still be accepted the Senate. A Cobell spokesman said Friday that the parties had agreed to extend until June 15 the May 28 deadline for approval mandated by a federal court.
Even as outlined, the deal created broad confusion, anger and lingering resentment across Indian Country.
The suit alleged the government mismanaged Indians' trust assets, swindling them out of billions of dollars in royalty payments for oil, gas, timber, grazing and other leases.
Some residents of Indian Country have worried the agreement might still fall apart, while others say it is unjust and want no part of it.
In DeVolve's case, she has an old filing cabinet in her crowded Yakima living room containing decades worth of papers regarding her parcels. What has happened with her family's land, as it has with that of many others, the government calls ``fractionation.'' It's the dilution of the original allotment as it passed in ownership through succeeding generations.
``It's hard,'' DeVolve said. ``I try to get it straight in my head and by the end of the night I just have a headache.''
But she has a clear metaphor for what she thinks has happened over the decades.
The Indian trust money was a hen house, and the fox appointed itself guard of the chickens, she said.
The settlement was announced by Cobell and the Obama administration in December, and, if the Senate signs off, it will become the largest Indian claim ever approved against the U.S. government.
Under the proposal, the federal government would distribute $1.4 billion to individual Indian account holders, with most receiving at least $1,500. The government also would set aside $2 billion to buy back _ on a voluntary sale basis _ the much divided land interests and return them to tribal control.
The agreement also sets up a commission to oversee reforms in Indian trust management.
Ervin Chavez, of Nageezi, N.M., said he'd rather see more of the settlement money going to beneficiaries. And he's not optimistic about government's efforts to reform the accounting system.
While individual class members are free to opt out of the settlement, Chavez said he'll take what he can get.
``A majority of Navajo people feel like I do: 'Yeah, I'll take $1,000 now,''' said Chavez, who heads a group that represents Navajo allottees, Shii Shi Keyah, or ``My Land, Our Land'' in Navajo.
Chavez estimates tens of thousands of people in the Four Corners area could benefit from the settlement.
His sister, Etta Arviso, of Bloomfield, N.M., said taking any money from the settlement would be the same as telling the government it did nothing wrong.
``Shame on the federal government, shame on them,'' she said. ``Those people should have been in jail.''
Albuquerque attorney Alan Taradash, who has represented the Shii Shi Keyah Association, calls the lawsuit a ``cruel joke.''
He said monetary damages are supposed to be a reflection of the loss that allottees suffered.
But ``after all this time, this so-called relief is unrelated to the problem,'' Taradash said. ``It's a get-out-of-jail-free card for the Department of Interior to continue to do what it's done in violating Indian rights. That I cannot accept.''
Cobell has acknowledged the settlement has flaws, including the fact that the amount is significantly less than what was sought.
Cobell wrote on her Cobell v. Salazar website that her greatest hope for the agreement is that it opens the door for ``significant and permanent'' reform in the way the Interior and Treasury departments manage Indian trust accounts.
Ivan Posey, chairman of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council on the sprawling Wind River Indian Reservation in central Wyoming, said that over time, many tribes -- including his own -- had developed a ``big mistrust'' of the government's handling of leases on trust land, and that could explain how many individuals now feel about the Cobell settlement.
He said the tribes were often completely left out of the loop when the government negotiated oil or grazing leases or some other right on Indian land.
While not ideal, he said the settlement, ``In my opinion, is probably the closest anybody has been, and the parties have agreed on.''
Posey said he has an individual trust account, as do many other members of his family, but he hasn't decided whether he will accept the money.
He said he was also unsure how many Eastern Shoshone would be covered by the agreement.
``I can't tell you an accurate number. You could probably get that from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, I imagine,'' he said. ``They should have a good accounting of that.
``I'm just kidding you,'' he said. ``That's a joke.''

Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Ariz. Associated Press Writer Ben Neary in Cheyenne, Wyo., also contributed to this report.

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