Cobell, settled at last

 

I remember the first time I learned of the Cobell case. It was several newspaper-lives ago. Over the years I collected lots of paper, listened to lawyers explanations and written a bit about the litigation.

The original complaint, filed in 1996, said at least 300,000 individual American Indians were victims of a gross breach of trust because of the way the Interior Department mismanaged Individual Indian Money accounts. IIM accounts hold money for individuals from land or natural resource payments as well as other transfers.

I remember thinking at the time about first-hand encounters with such record keeping. One Bureau of Indian Affairs agency superintendent told me that short-term interest from IIM accounts could even be used as a “secret slush fund” for urgent and unbudgeted expenses.

Elouise Cobell’s fourteen-year litigation was both complex and simple. The sheer volume of paper filed with the courts was extraordinary: Thousands of pages of documents, several trials, appeals, and plenty of contempt of court sanctions along the way. The case was also simple, based on this question: Can the government, acting as trustee, account for how it managed individual Indians’ money?