U.S. To Pay $3.4 Billion to Settle Native American Suit
December 9, 2009
By Ashby Jones
Wall Street Journal
Federal Indian law — or the law pertaining to the land and other holdings owned by Native Americans — isn’t a typical area of coverage for us. But when a lawsuit between Native American and the U.S. government settles for $3.4 billion, well, we sit up and take serious notice.
The federal government announced on Tuesday that it intends to pay that sum to settle claims that it has mismanaged the revenue in American Indian trust funds. According to the NYT’s account, the settlement could end one of the largest and most complicated class-action lawsuits ever brought against the United States.
According to the NYT story, the Interior Department manages about 56 million acres of Indian trust land scattered across the country. The government handles leases on the land for mining, livestock grazing, timber harvesting and drilling for oil and gas. It then distributes the revenue raised by those leases to the American Indians. In the 2009 fiscal year, it collected about $298 million for more than 384,000 individual Indian accounts.
The lawsuit accuses the federal government of mismanaging that money. As a result, the Indians contend that they are owed far more than what they have been paid.
Under the settlement, the government would pay to compensate the Indians for their claims of historical accounting irregularities and any accusation that federal officials mismanaged the administration of the land itself over the years.
The lawsuit may not have been this long-running, but it did span three presidencies, generate 22 published judicial opinions, and went before a federal appeals court 10 times.
Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff who filed the class-action lawsuit in 1996, said she believed that the Indians were owed more, but that it was better to reach an agreement that could help impoverished trust holders than to spend more years in court. She said she had originally expected the litigation to last only two or three years.
“We are compelled to settle by the sobering realization that our class grows smaller each day as our elders die and are forever prevented from receiving just compensation,“ Cobell said.
Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday said: “The United States could have continued to litigate this case, at great expense to the taxpayers. It could have let all of these claims linger, and could even have let the problem of fractionated land continue to grow with each generation. But with this settlement, we are erasing these past liabilities and getting on track to eliminate them going forward.”