WASHINGTON – As many as 30,000 Native Americans from seven Arizona tribes stand to benefit from the final settlement this week of a years-long, $3.4 billion lawsuit against the U.S. government.
Members of the Tohono O’odham, Navajo, Salt River, Pima-Maricopa, San Carlos Apache, Hopi, Gila River and Colorado River tribes are part of the class in Cobell v. Salazar.
The suit represented as many as a half-million Native Americans across the country, said Geoffrey Rempel, an accountant representing the members of the class.
The approval of the settlement — reached in 2009, signed by President Barack Obama and approved by Congress in 2010 — ends 15 years of court battles over a century?s worth of misused Indian royalties.
Members of the class will garner at least $1,000 each. It is the largest class-action settlement ever approved by the U.S. government.
Rempel said depending on a number of variables, many could receive much more. He said some Salt River tribe members would be receiving $1 million, for example.
“Some of them will make a substantial amount of money,” Rempel said. “In 1887, the government took land from individuals and said, ‘We’re going to manage this on your behalf.’ They didn't.”
It remains to be seen how long payments to Arizona members of the class will take. Rempel said there is a 60-day waiting period for appeals. Depending on how that goes, it could take longer.
“If there is a lengthy appeal process and it goes back to court, it could take anywhere between 12 to 18 months,” he said.
Under the settlement, $1.4 billion will be allocated to Individual Indian Money accounts, which is money held in trust by the government for individuals.
Another $1.9 billion will be put into a Trust Land Consolidation fund to buy Indian trust lands that are “fractionated.” This is when a parcel of land is given to one tribe member but then divided many times as it is handed down to later generations.
“The government doesn’t know simple division,” Rempel said of the fractionated land. “It’s a sad commentary on where things have gone.”
Another $60 million will go to an Indian Education Scholarship Fund to help young Native Americans go to college.
The suit, filed in 1996 by Elouise Cobell, a Montana banker and Blackfeet tribe member, alleged that the government cheated Native Americans out of billions of dollars of royalties because of poor handling of Indian trust accounts and lands. The accounts were intended for American Indians in exchange for timber, grazing, oil, gas leases and other things on tribal lands.
At Monday’s settlement hearing in U.S. District Court in Washington, some parties complained about the $99 million in legal fees given to the Cobell attorneys, according to the trust’s Internet Web site.
On the Internet, feelings were mixed, with some complaining that the settlement money was “crumbs” for the injury done while others it was important to get justice.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement that the settlement helps the government and Indian Tribes move on after a lengthy battle.
“The Cobell settlement not only resolves the contentious 15-year litigation, but also honorably and responsibly turns the page on an unfortunate chapter in the department’s history,” Salazar said in a statement.
Cobell, 65, was not able to able to attend the settlement hearing because of recent cancer treatment, but issued a statement from her Browning, Mont., home. She said that while it does not compensate for all Indian losses, it’s “fair and reasonable.”
“One hundred twenty four years of abuse of our trust is enough. Fifteen years of intense, difficult litigation is more than enough,” Cobell’s statement said. “Too many of us have died without justice.”