Thousands of American Indians are now in line to receive part of a $3.4 billion settlement with the federal government, ending a long-running dispute over government mismanagement of tribal lands and accounts.
After an initial agreement was outlined in 2009, Congress approved it in November 2010 and it spent the last two years going through an appeals process. It was finalized Saturday, with government officials announcing and touting it on Monday, reports CNN.
“I welcome the final approval of the Cobell settlement agreement, clearing the way for reconciliation between the trust beneficiaries and the federal government,” President Barack Obama said in a statement. The settlement is named after the late Elouise Cobell, a member of Montana’s Blackfeet Indian tribe. The deal follows a class-action lawsuit, filed in 1996, which 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.
One of the largest U.S. government settlements in history began with a lawsuit filed in 1996 by Elouise Cobell of Browning, Mont. The Blackfeet leader observed that those who leased Indian land made money from its natural resources, while the Indians themselves remained in poverty with no accounting of the royalties from that land that were held in trust for them by the government
Cobell herself led the fight against the government for more than 15 years before she died of cancer last year.
“We all are happy that this settlement can finally be implemented,” lead attorney Dennis Gingold said in a statement Monday. “We deeply regret that Ms. Cobell did not live to see this day.”
Approximately 350,000 beneficiaries could start receiving $1,000 checks by Christmas as the first part of the settlement goes forward, plaintiffs’ attorneys said.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar released a statement that said the settlement marks a step forward in reconciliation and a new era in how the government administers its trusts.
According to Businessweek, the agreement will pay out $1.5 billion to two classes of beneficiaries. Each member of the first class would be paid $1,000. Each member of the second class would be paid $800 plus a share of the balance of the settlement funds as calculated by a formula based on the activity in their trust accounts.
Another $1.9 billion would be used by the government to purchase fractionated land allotments from willing individuals and turn those consolidated allotments over to the tribe. An education scholarship for young Indians also would be established under the agreement.