Feds, Indians reach $3.4 billion settlement in royalty suit
Dan Nowicki – Dec. 9, 2009 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
More than 300,000 American Indians, including about 20,000 in Arizona, would settle their long-standing complaints about U.S. mismanagement of their trust accounts for $1.4 billion, under an agreement announced Tuesday by the Obama administration.
The settlement, which must be approved by Congress and a federal judge, would end a complicated and bitter class-action lawsuit that dates to President Bill Clinton’s administration.
The suit alleges that sloppy bookkeeping by the federal government has robbed the Indians of more than a century’s worth of revenue from mining, grazing, logging and other uses of their land.
Also, as part of the settlement, the federal government will introduce a $2 billion program to buy back and consolidate Indian land that had been “fractionated” into multiple individual owners over generations, making it difficult to develop.
The Interior Department would reform its accounting practices to ensure better quality control of individual Indian trust accounts and assets.
“Today is a monumental day for all of the people in Indian country who have waited so long for justice,” said Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet Tribe member from Browning, Mont., and the lead plaintiff who filed the lawsuit in 1996.
A database released by the Interior Department’s Office of Special Trustee for American Indians shows 20,393 Native Americans who live in Arizona hold Individual Indian Money Accounts that would qualify them for compensation under the proposed settlement.
That number includes members of out-of-state tribes who reside here, as well as members of Arizona-based Indian communities living in the state.
Republican Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl of Arizona applauded the prospect of a settlement, which was announced by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Attorney General Eric Holder.
“The settlement not only resolves past issues but charts a way forward in a manner intended to prevent future disputes,” Kyl said.
As then-chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, McCain introduced legislation in 2005 in an unsuccessful attempt to resolve the dispute.
“The financial mismanagement of American Indian trust accounts has long plagued relations between the U.S. government and American Indians,” McCain said.
“I look forward to working with my colleagues on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to determine the next steps for congressional action on this matter.”
Among the Arizona tribes with the highest number of affected members are the Gila River Indian Community, the Navajo Nation, the Tohono O’odham Nation, the White Mountain Apache Tribe, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and the San Carlos Apache Tribe.
President Barack Obama called the development “an important step towards a sincere reconciliation
<http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/2009/12/09/20091209cobell1209.html#> between the trust beneficiaries and the federal government” that will lead to better future management of Indian assets.
He urged Congress to take swift action to “correct this long-standing injustice” by endorsing the settlement.
The money for the settlement would come out of a litigation fund maintained by the Justice and Treasury departments and wouldn’t require a new congressional appropriation.
“As a candidate, I heard from many in Indian country that the Cobell suit remained a stain on the nation-to-nation relationship I value so much,” Obama said in a written statement. “I pledged my commitment to resolving this issue, and I am proud that my administration has taken this step today.”
The proposed $3.4 billion settlement represents a small percentage of what the Indians say they’ve lost since 1887. In the past, Cobell and her lawyers <http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/2009/12/09/20091209cobell1209.html#> had claimed the Interior Department owed Indian landowners more than $100 billion.
For her part, Cobell said she personally would have preferred to “litigate for another 100 years.” But many of her fellow beneficiaries are elderly, and the majority live in poverty. They need their money and probably can’t wait for the court case to drag on for 20 more years, she said.
The conciliatory attitude of the Obama administration, which she characterized as a refreshing change from President George W. Bush’s Interior Department, also helped make the time right for a settlement.
“Did we get all the money that was due us? Probably not, but . . . there are too many individual Indian beneficiaries that are dying every single day without their money,” Cobell said. “At least this settlement will give those particular people a payment of that money that has been due them for a number of years.”
John Lewis, executive director of the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, called the settlement “a positive action, a good sign for this administration.” His non-profit group, overseen by Arizona tribal leaders, promotes Indian self-reliance.
The Interior Department says it oversees approximately 56 million acres of Indian trust land and $3.5 billion in trust funds and administers more than 100,000 leases. The Cobell class action charged that, for more than 100 years, the federal government did not accurately keep track of royalties <http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/2009/12/09/20091209cobell1209.html#> owed to the Indians for farming, grazing, mining, logging and other activities.
Under the settlement’s $1.4 billion payout, the typical individual in the historical accounting class would get $1,000. The exact number of Indian beneficiaries is unclear. The Interior Department put the figure at more than 300,000, but it could be more than 500,000.
The settlement’s land-consolidation provision is an attempt to undo the consequences of the Dawes Act of 1887, which cut up tribal lands into pieces of 40 acres and 160 acres and allotted them to individual Indians.
Over the years, the properties were divided among their children, grandchildren and subsequent generations until the point where some parcels now have so many owners that productive development is all but impossible. The new program would allow the government to buy back pieces, if the owners wanted to sell, and assemble larger, more useful tracts that the Indian communities would control.
Robert Clinton, an Arizona State University professor who specializes in Indian law, was skeptical that the plan would eliminate the problems associated with the fractional allotments.
“Not immediately,” he said, “and not totally.”
Republic reporter Dennis Wagner contributed to this article.