December 8th, 2009
03:05 PM ET
9 years ago

Gov't offers to pay American Indians $1.4 billion for lost funds

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in an effort to recover lost funds, spoke out Tuesday about the proposed settlement."]
Washington (CNN) - Thousands of American Indians would receive as much as $1,000 each if they accept the proposed settlement of a class action lawsuit over government mismanagement of tribal lands.

The suit, filed in 1996, accused the U.S. Department of the Interior of failing to account for and provide revenue from a trust fund representing the value of Indian assets managed by the government.

Individual Indian Money accounts are supposed to represent the property of individual Indians, held by the United States as trustee on their behalf. The lawsuit had accused the government of failing to account for the money, failing to make proper payments, and converting tribal money for the government's own use.

A federal judge must approve the plan, and Congress would have to enact a bill to implement it.

At a Tuesday news conference, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar acknowledged the need for a "historical accounting for funds that the government held in trusts for Native Americans."

Attorney General Eric Holder, accompanying Salazar to announce the proposed class action settlement, said the deal addresses decades of allegations "the government has mismanaged acres of land and millions of dollars that it holds in trust for Native Americans."

But one of the American Indians who filed the suit in 1996 suggested the years of litigation had simply worn them down.

"It's not fair," said Elouise Cobell, but "in the future we may be treated more fairly."

Cobell, a member of Montana's Blackfeet Indian tribe, said those who could benefit from the payments are getting old and dying off.

Pressing for a higher settlement figure would be tough, she said, since she "can't handle how the mismanagement of this trust has hurt people."

Cobell said many of those represented in the class action suit "subsist in the direst poverty," and that the settlement is "significantly less than the full amount to which the Indians are owed."

Confirmation of a proposed settlement was a tightly-kept secret ahead of the news conference in a penthouse at the Interior Department. Part of the reason may have been that the deal nearly fell through just hours earlier, according to an agency official.

"It's confidential," said Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli in response to a reporter's question.

The first word of a deal was buried in a statement released in advance from the Interior Department that mentioned "the Cobell settlement," as part of a broader plan being announced to address land ownership by Native Americans.

With the proposed settlement of the class action case, the federal government plans to launch a $2 billion initiative to purchase "fractional interests" in land owned by groups of American Indians.

Such ownership dates back more than 100 years before American Indians were permitted to write wills. As a result, the government says large parcels of tribal lands are held by owners with "miniscule interests" received from ancestors who conveyed the property to descendants as tenants-in-common.

Officials say the purchase project will allow individual landowners to receive greater value for their share, while cutting administrative costs for the federal government which manages the Indian land trust.

Salazar said, "It is common to have hundreds - even thousands - of Indian owners for one parcel."

The initiative would consolidate ownership through purchases from willing sellers, and tribal governments would have control, according to a "fact sheet" ahead of the announcement.

Without the purchases, "Millions of acres of land will be owned in such small ownership interests that very few individual owners will ever derive any meaningful financial benefit from that ownership," the statement said.

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soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. travis l.

    its about time we get these cases dealt with.thats why as a native american I support our president.he actually cares about natives.bush blocked everything he could.he didn't care one bit about us.he would rather send money to iraqis & afghanies to waste on corrupt individuals & to defense & oil contractors. thank god we have a president who cares for the all the people not just some of the people!

    December 8, 2009 03:42 pm at 3:42 pm |
  2. A. Smith, Oregon

    For many Americans, this good will effort on behalf of the Federal Government is likely seen as nothing more than another hand-out to Native Americans.

    Native Americans often live in squalid conditions and are sadly lacking in adequate political action committees. Public education which is routinely offered to non-native Americans is sparsely found Native American citizens.

    Mismanagement by corrupt federal agency's in connection with corrupt American corporations to exploit the mineral and timber natural resources on Native American tribal lands has been a very long and lasting problem.

    It should be no surprise that only after the end of the horrific Bush-Cheney era that the Federal Government is now attempting to redress these grievous practices which have continued to destroy the culture of the Native people and keep Native Children poor and uneducated.

    December 8, 2009 03:51 pm at 3:51 pm |
  3. james Miller

    those that OK`ed the leases, drilling rights, etc. and those that profited from the "mismanagement" should pay. -– I certainly didn`t benefit from it.

    December 8, 2009 04:06 pm at 4:06 pm |
  4. Reformed Republican

    The white English protestants and Spanish catholics have been ripping off and killing native Americans enmasse ever since they strated landing on this continent.

    Put an end to this American genocide once and for all – Pay native Americans in full for what's been stolen from them and give it back so they can manage it for themselves.

    This is the 21st century – We ain't buyin' that "Great White Father Knows Best" crap that the republicans keep trying to shove at ALL Americans, native or otherwise...

    December 8, 2009 04:08 pm at 4:08 pm |
  5. indian from subcontinent

    For the love of God, it's Native American. Let's not propagate Columbus' mistake haha

    December 8, 2009 04:13 pm at 4:13 pm |
  6. Steve (the real one)

    I do feel bad for the American natives but they were NOT the only folks screwed by the government. We compensated our citizens of Japanese ancestry for what happened in WWII. I am the decendant of African slaves. Am I to expect a check as well and who decides how much? The question is...When will all this end? We all have stories of ill-treatment somewhere down the line! Pay everyone or stop the madness! All this will do is restart the demands for reparations (sp?)

    December 8, 2009 04:15 pm at 4:15 pm |
  7. mom2boys

    Wow, it's about time something was done...since you know, we stole their land and all.....

    December 8, 2009 04:42 pm at 4:42 pm |