By Scott McKie B.P.
One Feather staff
An historic class-action lawsuit filed in 1996 has finally been settled. The Cobell Case, as it came to be known, dealing with the federal government’s management of American Indian trust accounts, was settled earlier this week after 13 years of litigation.
Elouise Pepion Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Nation of Montana, filed the suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in June 1996. Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior, announced the settlement on Tuesday, Dec. 8.
“This is an historic, positive development for Indian Country and a major step on the road to reconciliation following years of acrimonious litigation between trust beneficiaries and the United States,” said Secretary Salazar.
According to information from the Department of Interior, under the settlement, “A fund totaling $1.4 billion will be distributed to class members to compensate them for their historical accounting claims, and to resolve potential claims that prior U.S. officials mismanaged the administration of trust assets.”
President Barack Obama, an adopted member of the Crow Nation of Montana, applauded the settlement. “With this announcement, we take an important step towards a sincere reconciliation between the trust beneficiaries and the federal government and lay the foundation for more effective management of Indian trust assets in the future.”
Rep. Nick J. Rahall (D-WV), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, stated, “All of Indian Country owes a large debt of gratitude to Elouise Cobell, who has dedicated over a decade of her life to fight this battle. She has been a stalwart advocate, who never wavered in her pursuit to collect what was duly owed to affected tribal communities, despite unfair attacks and pressure to end her quest over the years.”
The case itself involved literally hundreds of thousands of plaintiffs and according to the DOI, “The settlement funds will be administered by the trust department of a bank approved by the district court and distributed to individual Indians by a claims administrator in accordance with court orders and the settlement agreement.”
Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), co-chairman of the Native American Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives commented, “After 13 long years of litigation, Native Americans have been vindicated after the Department of Interior’s blatant mismanagement of tribal lands. Though I would like to see individual plaintiffs receiving a more substantial compensation, I am glad that the U.S. government was finally willing to acknowledge past mistakes and offer a measure of compensation to the injured parties.”
Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) called the federal government’s past management of trust assets “shameful” and said “the losses incurred by Native Americans as a result of the federal government’s mismanagement of Indian trust accounts have been enormous.”
For more information, visit the website for the Office of Special Trustee: www.ost.doi.gov.