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House Votes to Approve Indian Trust Settlement

December 1, 2010

The long-overdue $3.4 billion settlement of the federal government’s mismanagement of the accounting for royalties for the use of Native American lands was finally approved Tuesday in the House, along with a settlement of a related case involving black farmers who had sued the Department of Agriculture for discriminatory treatment.

Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the 15-year-old class-action lawsuit over the federal government's mismanagement of its Indian Trust and the individual trust accounts, hailed the House vote as a landmark milestone on the road to justice for Native American people. It came after last week’s approval in the Senate of the same settlement (see Senate Passes Cobell Accounting Settlement).

“This is truly an historic day in Indian Country as well as in America’s history,” said Cobell, who is a member of the Blackfeet Nation. “By Congress placing a seal of approval on this settlement, a monumental step has been taken to remove a stain on our national honor, and create a better future for Indians as our government begins to make some amends for grave past injustices.”

The House action completes the long delayed legislative phase of the settlement of Cobell, et al v. Salazar, et al and sends the bill to President Barack Obama for his anticipated signature.

However, the process is still not quite finished yet. Even after President Obama signs off on the settlement, the case will return once again to court for a hearing before D.C. District Court Judge Thomas Hogan in accordance with federal court rules to confirm the fairness of the settlement, determine the appropriate attorney fees and to establish distribution of funds to the class members. The attorney fees have been a bit of a sticking point already.

Still, Cobell said in a statement that she was glad the settlement had gotten this far, even if she still disagrees with the accounting for the royalties earned on leases of the Native American land, which has been exploited for well over a century for oil and gas and other natural resources.

“This unprecedented Congressional action paves the way for a brighter and better relationship with government," Cobell said. “There is still much to be done in trust reform and improving trustee performance by the Department of Interior, but this huge step makes those other steps possible. While the money is not as much as we believe we are entitled to, there was no end in sight to this litigation and the settlement will be recognized by Native People as an acknowledgment by the federal government that it wronged them by its mismanagement of Indian money and Indian lands. I am saddened that this process, which I began with the filing of our lawsuit in 1996, has taken so long. Too many account holders, as I have often said, have died awaiting this settlement.”

The settlement also establishes a $1.9 billion fund for the voluntary buy-back and consolidation of "fractionated land interests to address the continued proliferation of thousands of new trust accounts caused by the division of land interests through succeeding generations and for other trust related activities," according to Secretary of the Interior Kan Salazar.

"The land consolidation program will provide individual Indians with an opportunity to consolidate and transfer divided ownership interests to their tribal governments, where they will remain in trust for the benefit of tribal communities," he wrote on the White House blog. "Individual Indians will receive cash payments for these transfers and, as an additional incentive, transfers will trigger government payments into a $60 million Indian scholarship fund."

The settlement is long overdue in one of the longest-running accounting (or, perhaps more accurately, misaccounting) cases on record.

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