Government agrees to settle billion-dollar Indian lawsuit
13-year-old suit would mean payment for hundreds of thousands of Native Americans
The Obama administration has agreed to spend $3.4 billion to settle litigation filed on behalf of hundreds of thousands of American Indians who claimed the government cheated them out of billions of dollars in oil, gas, mining and timber royalties over more than a century.
The settlement is far short of the $47 billion that the plaintiffs estimated they were owed as a result of the government's mismanagement.
Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Nation who filed suit 13 years ago to force the government to pay up, said the settlement isn't fair, but it was time to compromise.
"We suffered too long in the government's hands and now it's time for change," Cobell said. "So weighing all those issues together, we agreed this is probably one of the best deals that we could get at this time."
Congress and a federal court must approve the agreement struck between the Interior and Justice departments and lawyers for hundreds of thousands of American Indians. But as planned, $1.4 billion would be paid out to class-action plaintiffs while $2 billion would go to buying up parcels owned by dozens or hundreds of sellers, reforming the accounting process and launching a college scholarship fund.
Forrest Cuch, executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, said few Utahns would be personally impacted by the settlement and it comes too late for many plaintiffs who have died while waiting for a resolution.
"It's good news but it's a long time passed," Cuch said. "I think it's good anytime there is an effort to pay reparations for damage to Native people and it's appreciated even though it comes late."
The portion of the Navajo reservation in Utah is not part of the litigation against the federal government, because those lands were managed by the state, and are the subject of separate litigation and settlement talks.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the long-awaited settlement was reached Monday night; a Salazar aide said it almost fell apart but came back together after a call to a federal judge.
"In a larger sense we are here to right a past wrong, to forge a solution to an ongoing and worsening problem, and lay out a path to responsible management of Indian trust in the 21st Century," Salazar said Tuesday.
Attorney General Eric Holder said it was one of the largest class-action lawsuits ever brought against the federal government. The money, after winning approval by Congress and the courts, will be distributed to the beneficiaries based on a formula determined by the court.
In addition, Salazar said the government would spend $2 billion to consolidate American Indian lands that have been divided up again and again among heirs as the original owners die, and to reform the accounting processes.
The settlement would be paid out from a judgment account set up by the Justice and Treasury departments.
Cobell filed the class action suit in 1996 with several other tribe members on behalf of more than 300,000 American Indians who said they were cheated out of billions of dollars in royalties from oil, gas, timber and mining activities conducted on their land dating back to 1887.
Interior officials estimate members of the class action suit should receive at least $1,000 each.
The federal government was designated to act as trustee to ensure the American Indian landholders' interests were protected under treaties signed between the tribes and the government.
Records relating to the trust had been damaged, destroyed, or are missing.
Along the way, concerns that a lack of computer security jeopardized the American Indian money prompted a federal judge to shut down the entire Interior Department Internet connectivity for years.
In 1999, a federal judge ruled the American Indians were owed an accounting of the trust assets, but the poor condition of the records and the division of the land among an estimated 1.4 million heirs as the original owners died made it an accounting nightmare.
In January 2008, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., awarded $455.6 million to the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit but the award was overturned by the appeals court, which ruled the government had an obligation to do an accounting.
Cobell noted after her arranged remarks at the news conference that if it were just her involved, she would fight on for another century until American Indians got all their money.
"I was not tired," she said. "I wanted to continue to fight on, but the deciding factor is I live in Indian Country, and I see people every day dying without their money."
The settlement does not affect suits brought by individual tribes.
Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said he applauded the settlement and looks forward to Congress taking steps to settle the long-running suit as well.
"The financial mismanagement of American Indian trust accounts has long plagued relations between the U.S. Government and American Indians," McCain said.
Negotiations over Utah Indian money continue
Lawyers for as many as 8,000 members of the Navajo Nation living in San Juan County say they hope to settle a 17-year-old lawsuit against the state over mismanagement of royalties in the Utah Navajo Trust Fund.
Attorney Brian Barnard said ongoing meetings with the state and a court mediator have been productive.
The lawsuit, filed in 1992, seeks an accounting of how an estimated $50 million in royalties from Navajo lands were spent by the state trustee.
"We think it's time this issue was settled, not only for the state but for the Navajo Nation," said House Speaker David Clark, R-Santa Clara, who expects a settlement -- which would have to be approved by the Legislature -- "sooner rather than later."