$3.4B Indian lawsuit ends, disbursements to begin

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HELENA, Mont. — After nearly 17 years of courtroom arguments, congressional negotiations and Indian Country bickering, hundreds of thousands of Native Americans could see the first payments of a $3.4 billion U.S. government settlement by the end of the year, plaintiffs’ attorneys said Monday.

The settlement between American Indians across the nation and the government over more than a century’s worth of squandered and mismanaged land trust royalties became final on Friday, when the appeal period expired.

One of the largest U.S. government settlements in history began with a lawsuit filed in 1996 by Elouise Cobell of Browning, Mont. The Blackfeet leader observed that those who leased Indian land made money from its natural resources, while the Indians themselves remained in poverty with no accounting of the royalties from that land that were held in trust for them by the government

The agreement will pay out $1.5 billion to two classes of beneficiaries. Each member of the first class would be paid $1,000. Each member of the second class would be paid $800 plus a share of the balance of the settlement funds as calculated by a formula based on the activity in their trust accounts.

Approximately 350,000 beneficiaries could start receiving $1,000 checks by Christmas as the first part of the settlement goes forward, plaintiffs’ attorneys said.

Another $1.9 billion would be used by the government to purchase fractionated land allotments from willing individuals and turn those consolidated allotments over to the tribe. An education scholarship for young Indians also would be established under the agreement.

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