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Tuesday, March 31, 2015   22:08 GMT
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Obama's $3B Settlement Not Enough?
Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, 11 Dec (IPS) - Though pleased with the Barrack Obama administration's decision to compensate the indigenous tribes for unjust occupation of their lands, American Indian activists are saying that Washington has to do more to heal their nations' wounds.

"It's good to settle the case, but it's not enough money for individuals," Carrie Garrow, executive director of the Centre for Indigenous Law, Governance and Citizenship, told IPS about the U.S. government's announcement that it was willing to pay over three billion dollars to American Indian tribes who had lost their lands.

The Obama administration reached a tentative agreement Monday with American Indian leaders to resolve a 13 year-old lawsuit over hundreds of thousands of land trust accounts that date back to the 1800s.

But, for the deal to become final, the U.S. Congress must enact a new law. If cleared by Congress and a federal judge, the settlement would be the largest Indigenous nations' claim ever endorsed against Washington.

President Obama described the deal as an "important step forward towards a sincere reconciliation between the U.S. government and American Indians." Before being elected U.S. president, Obama said in a speech that he was in solidarity with the American Indians. "I know what it's like to not always have been respected or to have been ignored and I know what it's like to struggle and that's how I think many of you understand what's happened here on the reservation," Obama told American Indian leaders at a gathering in Montana.

Statistics show that indigenous communities - which constitute about one percent of the U.S. population - are among the most marginalised sections of society with regard to health care, education and employment.

In March 2006 and again in March 2008, a panel of U.N. experts analysed the U.S. government's treatment of indigenous Americans and ruled that it was guilty of racial discrimination.

In its 2008 report, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) also urged the U.S. to sign onto the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the previous U.S. administration had rejected.

Indigenous rights activists say they hope that the Obama administration will endorse the declaration, which recognises the rights of the indigenous peoples around the world to control their lands and resources. During the Nov. 4 presidential election, a vast majority of native people voted for Obama, according to Frank LaMere of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, who led the American Indian delegation to the Democratic Convention.

"Obama has stood with us and it is now time that we stand with him," he said, describing the natives' interest in the political process as unprecedented. "Indian country has responded to the Democratic message of change and the need for urgency."

Under the new settlement, Washington would pay over one billion dollars to more than 300,000 members of native tribes and establish a 2 billion dollar fund to buy back and consolidate tribal land grabbed in the past.

The programme would let individuals to obtain cash payments for land interests divided among numerous family members and return the land to tribal control.

The settlement is likely to create a scholarship account of up to 60 million dollars for tribal members to attend college or vocational school as well.

The Interior Department was sued 13 years ago for mishandling the revenue in Indian trust funds dating back to 1887.

In a statement, Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit and a member of Montana's Blackfeet tribe called the settlement "crucial" for hundreds of thousand of Native Americans who have suffered for more than a century.

Officials admit that the U.S. government has committed a "breach of trust" on Indian land issues. However, the government has offered no apology to the native communities as yet.

Last year, in response to the CERD report, Washington justified the occupation of native lands by saying that tribes had abandoned traditional land tenure and practices and cited "gradual encroachment" by non-natives as evidence to claim much of the land as federal territory.

In their petition to the CERD panel, the Western Shoshone tribe countered that "gradual encroachment," in fact, took place as part of a U.S. policy to "steal" their lands, and that this constituted racism.

Garrow, who keeps a keen eye on unlawful actions against the American Indian communities on behalf of the U.S. government praises the Obama administration's actions, but, at the same time, raises doubts about its ability to deliver what it has promised.

"They have taken some good steps in acknowledging our right to self- governance," she told IPS. "I think we need to see whether or not they put things they talked about into action."



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