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Redressing a historic wrong; Native Americans to see settlement checks from feds

Forum Communications Photo by Eric Hylden Loretta Joyce DeCoteau, 78, with great-granddaughter, Aubree, 5, inherited a parcel of land in Montana making her eligible to share in the Cobell Settlement.1 / 2
Forum Communications Photo by Eric Hylden Jessie Cree, 57, hopes to restore electricity and running water to his home on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation near Dunseith if he receives a share of the Cobell Settlement.2 / 2

DUNSEITH -- In the dim bleakness of the dilapidated shelter he shares with two grown sons and several small "ankle-biter" dogs on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, Jessie Cree, 57, listens intently as cousin Delvin Cree and another visitor talk money.

A long-awaited major settlement with the federal government means that checks for $1,000 will arrive soon at homes across Indian Country, including more than 15,000 going to members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians: a nice Christmas present for some, a significant windfall for others.

Jessie Cree's two-room shack in the woods east of Dunseith is without electricity. There is no running water, no plumbing, no car in the dirt driveway. With an ax and a small saw, Cree cuts wood from nearby stands of poplar and oak to feed a scavenged wood stove that struggles against the December chill. On the coldest nights, he shuts off one of the rooms to concentrate the smoky heat in the main room, littered with empty cans, soiled paper plates and other scraps of daily life lived in extreme poverty.

It is an extreme example of the poverty endemic on this small reservation in north-central North Dakota.

Jessie sits on a bed, a bare and weary mattress, and listens as the visitors ask whether he is eligible to share in the Cobell payout.

"I hope so," he says earnestly. "It would be good to get electricity in this house, and maybe running water. We had running water when my dad had this house.

"But we're going through some tough times right now."

A 15-year fight

The $3.4 billion Cobell Settlement, named for a Montana Blackfeet woman who filed a class-action lawsuit in 1996, is an acknowledgment by the United States government that federal agencies for more than a century mismanaged and squandered money from individual Indian accounts.

Those accounts, held in trust by the government, were built with royalties for oil, gas, grazing and other leases on Indian trust land and, in some cases, the sale of those lands.

The first payments are going out this month to about 350,000 Indian beneficiaries, including $15 million to North Dakota residents (about half of the Turtle Mountain-enrolled recipients live out of state) and $20.7 million to Indians residing in Minnesota. A second round of payments, ranging between $800 and $1 million depending on the extent of individual holdings, is scheduled within about six months and will bring nearly $60 million to Indians in North Dakota and $36.6 million to Minnesota residents, according to David Smith, a Washington, D.C. attorney with the Kilpatrick Townsend law firm, who represented the Indian plaintiffs throughout negotiations with the government.

Many of the people receiving checks in the first round will be included in the second, he said.

Patrick Blue Jr., 48, said he'd like to buy a used trailer home with his share of the settlement so he can move out of public housing at Dunseith.

"It should be a lot more, for what we lost," he said. "There was a lot of property lost and a lot of people profiting off our land."

Reform on way

Some Indians who believed the settlement was a poor bargain filed appeals, delaying the payout.

Delvin Cree said he agreed the deal, one of the largest federal settlements with Indians ever, isn't what it should be.

"Many people will take the Cobell Settlement money because they desperately need it for necessities," he said, including his elderly father, Henry Cree Sr., who lives in a nursing home in Belcourt, on the reservation.

"I don't blame them for accepting," Delvin Cree said. "Twelve thousand people have died waiting."

Smith, the attorney for the Cobell plaintiffs, said that "by far the great majority of people we've talked with are satisfied" with the settlement.

"It will make a significant difference in their lives," he said. "It also got the federal government's attention, and as a result there are serious efforts going on now toward trust reform. That is one of the greatest impacts of the lawsuit."

Eloise Cobell saw that farmers, ranchers and others who leased Indian land made money off its natural resources while the Indians themselves lived in poverty, with little or no accounting of royalties supposedly held in trust for them by the government.

For 15 years, Cobell led the fight for redress, but she died of cancer last year while appeals of a settlement negotiated in 2009 with the departments of Interior and Treasury worked their way through federal courts. Late last month, all appeals were exhausted and a deadline for further appeals passed.

Huge sum to many

Loretta Joyce DeCoteau, 78, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band, owns a parcel of isolated land in Montana, which qualifies her for $1,000 now and another payment later.

"I feel very fortunate that I inherited it," she said of the land and the royalties. "My grandparents had to suffer for it."

DeCoteau, tending 5-year-old great-granddaughter Aubree at the Belcourt nursing home, said she once tried to visit her land. A man drove her out to a vastness worked by lease-holders, stopping at a point and saying he could go no further without trespassing.

DeCoteau could not see her land from that point. "I never did see it."

The money will be nice but won't really change her life.

"To me, it's going to be a nice Christmas gift," she said, smiling.

But for others of the Turtle Mountain Band, where unemployment is chronic and housing is scarce, it could be much more.

"There are people out there now, all over this reservation -- no house, no vehicle, no job," Henry Cree said. "They would work in the oil fields out west, but they can't get there.

"People are staying with friends or family, doubling up in homes, getting $168 a month in General Assistance and food stamps. They're stuck on the reservation."

Clyde Houle, 63, said he will believe he benefits from the settlement when the check arrives.

"As Indian people, we've heard that for many years: 'It's coming.' The government is ashamed to look back at the past," he said.

Practicing survival

At Jessie Cree's place in the woods, Jessie talks about survival, about chopping and hauling wood from a stand of oaks he said his grandfather planted.

"Keeping warm in the winter takes up a lot of time," he said.

He listens to talk radio on a battery-operated set, usually staying up late, to 4 a.m. or later, feeding the wood stove. The late hours became a habit when he sat up with his late wife as she struggled through the final stages of cancer, he said. She died in 2009.

He thinks about taking up a project he had planned years ago, producing a child's storybook filled with the stories of Indian lore and custom he heard from parents and grandparents and other elders.

"I learned survival from my parents and other old ones," he says. "They told me, 'Sometimes you might have to practice survival.'

"I'm finding that out now."

Delvin Cree tells his cousin that he has to call an 800 number to check on his eligibility for inclusion in the settlement. Delvin dials the number on his cellphone. It's busy. It has been busy the last several times he's tried to call, he says.

But he tries again and this time gets through. He hands the phone to Jessie, who responds to a series of questions: name, birth date and other indentifying information.

Five minutes later, he gets good news: He is on the list. A check is on its way. It should arrive before Christmas.

"That thousand dollars, it isn't like a saving thing," Jessie Cree says later. "It won't save anybody. But it'll come in handy.

"Hopefully, when that Cobell comes through, maybe we'll get a couple space heaters. We'll be able to get on our feet again, kind of."