The State of Indian Nations is bound in red tape.
Jefferson Keel, president of the D.C.-based National Congress of American Indian, delivered the organization’s ninth annual address on Thursday. He urged the federal government to clear the way and allow tribes to participate fully in economic life by invoking rights to natural resource mining on Indian lands.
“Our largest assets – tribal lands – remain fragmented and caught in a web of stifling BIA regulations and bureaucracy,” Keel said, pointing out that tribes possess nearly $1 trillion worth of largely untapped energy resources. “Realizing the potential of energy resources offers immense promise for tribal communities, and the United States as a whole.”
He recounted the story of the oil-rich Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota, which he said had a ring of oilrigs forming outside its borders as the tribe tried to complete the 49 bureaucratic steps necessary for energy development on reservation land.
That red tape blocks more than energy development on reservations. Keel lamented that while 95 percent of Americans have access to broadband, only 10 percent of people on tribal lands can access it.
“Broadband is the pipeline to progress, and we need investment,” he said, “but first we need an end to barriers that stand in the way.”
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, delivered the official congressional response to the address. She has been a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs throughout her eight years in Congress, and said that in a time of deficit and budget slashing, she is prepared to fight to ensure tribes get their slice of the federal fiscal pie.
Murkowski, who lost the Republican primary in 2010 but managed to hold onto her seat by virtue of write-in votes, said many of the new legislators who challenged incumbents ran last year on the idea that the federal government should only spend money on issues outlined as federal responsibilities in the Constitution.
It appears she plans on holding the new guys to their word.
“The wellbeing of Native people is a uniquely federal responsibility, and only a federal responsibility … not a state responsibility,” she said. “The federal Indian programs that we fight hardest to fund were created to fulfill the trust responsibility between its nation and its first people.”
Jacqueline Johnson Pata, NCAI’s executive director, echoed those sentiments after the event. “The trust responsibility to tribal nations is not a budget line item, it is a solemn promise,” she said.
The address was live-streamed through the NCAI’s website, where about 500 people tuned in. Viewers commented throughout the speeches on both Facebook and Twitter.
Hundreds of thousands of notices have been sent out to American Indians this week that could be affected by the $3.4 billion class action settlement Cobell v. Salazar, in which a Montana banker sued the federal government over misspent money accounts.
As ordered by the court, and later approved by the legislative and executive branches, a third party firm has launched an effort to notify the potentially hundreds of thousands of American Indians that might have been affected by the mismanaged accounts.
This outreach campaign and upcoming media blitz is alerting people that they could receive payments in the billion dollar settlement. Most will receive about $1,800 but some could receive more, according to the Department of Interior.
A federal judge approved the settlement in December, following a 14-year court battle led by Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet tribe from Browning, Mont.
Those that might have been affected by the case are asked to seek more information at http://www.indiantrust.com, or to call the Indian Trust Settlement Hotline, 1-800-961-6109.
Cobell claimed in her suit that the federal government failed to provide a historical account for Individual Indian Money accounts, money the feds held in trust for Native American landowners in exchange for leasing tribal land. The government either mismanaged the deposits in those accounts or failed altogether to deposit money – royalties for oil, gas, grazing and other leases – owed to tribal members, Cobell said.
The settlement also includes $1.9 billion for the Department of Interior to purchase checkerboard land and return it to tribes as well as up to $60 million for scholarships.
“The Obama administration is continuing to move forward on its agenda to honorably and responsibly address long-standing injustices in Indian Country,” said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in a statement.
Notifying beneficiaries will be a tough task because as many as 500,000 are scattered throughout the nation, Cobell said. There are about 20,000 IIM account holders in Montana for example, with huge amounts also living in Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona.
“I want to make sure every IIM account holder that benefits from this gets the word,” Cobell said.
To do this, court-appointed media companies are sending out letters and putting out newspaper, radio, television and online advertising directing people to the Indian Trust Settlement Web site and hotline, set to debut next week.
The idea is to inform those who have or had government-managed IIM accounts or trust lands about their rights and options concerning this settlement.
Account holders can register to receive a payment, choose to exclude themselves from the settlement and keep their right to sue the federal government over mismanagement claims or submit written comments or objections about settlement terms.
Beneficiaries have to register within 45 days of the court’s final approval of the settlement, which is expected to happen in June. In the meantime, a fairness hearing, in which people can object to the Cobell settlement before a federal judge gives the final approval, has been set for April 20.
Those who currently receive IIM account statements don’t have to do anything to receive payment.
Cobell is urging those who didn’t get a notification but still believe they are due payment should contact the law firm handling claims.
As this process moves forward, Cobell said money isn’t the only factor in this settlement. The lawsuit brought trust management for American Indians to the forefront.
“We made some giant steps to identify the issues,” Cobell said. “You stop that behavior in its tracks.”
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A court-appointed media company has started a campaign to notify hundreds of thousands of Native Americans they may be beneficiaries of a $3.4 billion settlement.
Last month, a federal judge granted preliminary approval of the settlement over mismanaged money accounts held in trust by the federal government for Indian landowners. The settlement is the result of a 14-year lawsuit by Elouise Cobell of Browning, Mont.
Kinsella Media has begun notifying potential beneficiaries through the mail and through newspaper, radio, television and online advertising.
Beneficiaries have to register within 45 days of the court’s final approval of the settlement. A fairness hearing has been set for April 20.
This is quite frightening.
I am sitting in my fourth floor office, safely in front of my computer – playlist raging at a professional volume – and yet my heart is racing, my hands are shaking, there is a slight shiver in my shoulder. It’s stage fright.
I have a lot riding on Reznet and it all starts with this re-launch of the site. It is not my only job here at the University of Montana, but it is important. There are a lot of eyes on the site, and I can’t help but sweat from the heat blaring out of that digital spotlight.
It’s taken a lot of work to get Reznet going again. It’s been over a year since reporters have created original work. Many of the site’s original writers and editors have understandably moved on. What I hoped was going to be an easy task of getting the band back together for some serious rockin’, like Kiss in 1996, turned out to be a gargantuan effort to form a new band and hope nobody would notice, like Kiss in 2002.
However, the original intent of Reznet had to remain intact: To help recruit and train Native American college and high school students in the journalism field. It’s the same mission I have in my new position as the Director of Native American Journalism Projects, and the sole reason I left my job and family in August.
I thought the Navajo Times, where I had worked for six years covering tribal government, was going to be my last job in the journalism field. I had said if I were ever to leave that paper, it would be for something in an entirely different field.
That job was very important to me. I had a purpose writing for The Navajo Times, a purpose that was missing when I worked for other exponentially larger newspapers on both coasts. I had an audience that I cared about, faces that I could picture while trying to explain how a revenue shortfall could affect their jobs.
The entire time, though, I would have much preferred writing about music for a glossy magazine or an even glossier web site. I have a scary mental database of movie factoids filed by genre, star, director and…uh, kill shots that I would have rather put to use for any number of entertainment publications.
However, there are hundreds of people clamoring for those jobs; to live in a shiny city writing about famous people for a large audience. Yet, such was not the case for the Navajo Times; to work in dusty Window Rock, Ariz., writing about tribal government for a readership that only just outnumbers the capacity at a Montana Griz football game.
This is where I hope to find success with Reznet. To find students from Indian reservations who want to work for their audience. Who want to find satisfaction from working in one of the most un-glamorous corners in an un-glamorous field. Who want to pick up the storytelling torch after the big name media outlets have left following the latest minority tragedy and show how much more is going on back at home.
It all starts with this re-launch.
ROCKY BOY’S RESERVATION, Montana – A half-year ago, much of the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation in north central Montana was under water.
Still in recovery mode, the Chippewa Cree tribe is facing years of work just to get back to where they were before the unprecedented flood hit this small reservation in mid-June last year.
Ted Whitford, a Rocky Boy tribal councilman, estimated that the reservation sustained more than $31 million in flood damages.
The flood washed out roads and destroyed plumbing lines leaving hundreds of homes without water for days. In all, 12 inches of rain fell, over-saturating the ground and shifted the land under a $12 million health clinic rendering it condemned. In August, President Barack Obama ordered a disaster declaration for the reservation and portions of Hill County.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is covering the entire cost for the recovery, including reimbursing the tribe for any rebuilding costs that the tribe incurred before the federal declaration, Whitford said.
It’s a rare move as the federal government usually splits costs with those in the affected area. The tribe’s poor economic state almost certainly factored into FEMA’s decision, Whitford said.
“I’m really grateful for FEMA’s efforts,” Whitford said. “They were so helpful.”
FEMA and the tribe identified 124 damaged locations on Rocky Boy. Whitford said the tribe has rebuilt nearly a third of those places, including roads, water lines and homes. He added that some projects were rebuilt with higher standards, upgraded to hold up against any future disasters.
Tribal officials have said it could take Rocky Boy two to three years to complete the structural recovery.
Then there are the residents, including some with severe personal losses.
“There’s no way to put a dollar amount on it,” Whitford said.
Whitford said he is concerned about the mold problem that has developed in some homes after flood waters receded. He said some residents are reporting lung problems that could be connected to mold.
The tribe has plans to start construction on a new clinic building this spring. In the meantime, clinic operations have been downsized to an older medical building, located about a mile away.
The new proposed building will be constructed to the same square footage as the damaged facility and could cost as much as $19 million to complete, Whitford said.
It could take two years to finish the new building, proposed in a new location about seven miles east of Box Elder, a reservation border town. The damaged medical building, which was about two years old and cost about $12 million, was located on a hillside west of Agency Square and is expected to be demolished.
The tribe expects to use it’s own workforce to build the new clinic.
In the wake of the flood, the tribe also demolished Agency Dam on the reservation because of concern it was going to fail, Whitford said.
The tribe also elevated a handful of homes and the tribe’s water line has been moved out of the floodplain. About four percent of the FEMA recovery funds can be used to upgrade infrastructure that could fail given another disaster, Whitford said.
There are a host of other building projects that the cash-strapped tribe had to delay because of the flood, Whitford said.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Whitford said. “It could be worse before it gets better.”
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