The National Congress of American Indians will decide tomorrow whether to urge support for changes to the $3.4 billion settlement in the Cobell v. Salazar class-action Indian trust case.
Congress must sign off on the settlement, but Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., has urged changes, including a cap on attorneys’ fees. If no agreement can be reached on his proposal, the entire settlement, benefiting hundreds of thousands of Indian people, could be in jeopardy.
Ruth Brown of the Rapid City (S.D.) Journal is covering this week’s NCAI meeting in Rapid City, and reports here:
Elouise Cobell in Washington, D.C., in December, when the historic settlement was announced. Now it's in danger of unraveling. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
The Cobell case is a long-standing lawsuit that addresses alleged mishandling of Native American trust land accounts by the federal government. It alleges the U.S Department of the Interior has bungled the accounting on thousands of individual Native trust accounts for more than 100 years. It covers more than 60 million acres that have been entrusted to survivors of the original landowners.
Barrasso said he thinks attorney fees and costs should be capped at $50 million — up to $50 million less than proposed. He also suggested setting aside $50 million of the settlement money for certain lawsuit participants who receive “insufficient or unfair” amounts under the settlement’s payment formula. The money would be distributed by a “special master” appointed by the court.
“The settlement would provide an immediate benefit to the approximately 350,000 individual Indians who are members of the class action,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee. “This is compensation that could go a long way for those that need it most.”
The proposed agreement calls for the U.S. Department of the Interior to distribute $1.4 billion to more than 300,000 Native Americans nationwide. Most participants in the class-action lawsuit, filed in 1996 by Elouise Cobell of Browning, Mont., would receive at least $1,500.
The settlement also requires the government to spend $2 billion to buy back and consolidate tribal land broken up in previous generations, and create a $60 million Indian Education Scholarship fund.
During the 14 years, many of the people the suit would have benefited have died.
“I have had to lose 5,000 Blackfeet (who died) that haven’t been paid,” James St. Goddard, a Blackfeet tribal leader, tells Brown. “A lot of people don’t truly understand the importance of the Cobell case, and I must hear from my Indian brothers before decisions are made.”
Tags: Blackfeet, buffalo post, Cobell v. Salazar, Elouise Cobell, Gwen Florio, Indian Education Scholarship fund, National Congress of American Indians, Native American news, Sen. Byron Dorgan, Sen. John Barrasso, U.S. Interior Department, U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs