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Cobell case settlement

December 11, 2009

The Cobell Case, which has been litigated and debated for the last 13 years, was settled a few days ago. In the 1996 class action suit the plaintiff, Elouise Cobell, charged that the government mismanaged more than $100 billion in oil, timber, grazing and other royalties on land owned by some 500,000 individual Indian beneficiaries. These properties were held in trust by the U.S. government, with all royalties to go to Native American individuals and tribes. The royalties were never transferred to the Native American trustors, though many if not all of the rightful recipients continued to live in poverty for generations.

In pressing the suit, the plaintiffs discovered that the government had failed to keep adequate records of the properties and the royalties they generated, making it nearly impossible to repay the missing royalties. Over the years, a wide range of figures have been named as possible settlements, but in June 2008 a federal court ruled that the government owed only $455 million to the plaintiffs. In the context of that ruling, the current settlement, in which the class accepts a payment of $1.4 billion to be shared among the plaintiffs, and the federal government commits another $2 billion to buy up small shares of scattered properties from their current owners, may be a reasonable outcome. The settlement will yield only $1000 for each plaintiff in the class. It includes the creation of a “$60 million federal Indian Education Scholarship fund to improve access to higher education for Indian youth, and it includes a commitment by the federal government to appoint a commission that will oversee and monitor specific improvements in the Department’s accounting for and management of individual Indian trust accounts and trust assets, going forward.”

Ms. Cobell had mixed sentiments in her statement about the settlement:

“There is little doubt this is significantly less than the full amount to which individual Indians are entitled. Yes, we could prolong our struggle and fight longer, and perhaps one day we would know – down to the penny – how much individual Indians are owed. Perhaps we could even litigate long enough to increase the settlement amount.

Nevertheless we are compelled to settle now by the sobering realization that our class grows smaller each year, each month, and every day, as our elders die, and are forever prevented from receiving their just compensation. We also face the uncomfortable, but unavoidable fact that a large number of individual money account holders currently subsist in the direst poverty, and this settlement can begin to address that extreme situation and provide some hope and a better quality of life for their remaining years.

I am particularly happy to see recognition of the need for funds to be set aside to promote higher education opportunities for Indian youth. My greatest optimism about this settlement, however, is the hope it holds for significant and permanent reform in the way the Departments of Interior and Treasury account for and manage Individual Indian Money accounts. There is much room for improvement, and I expect the Commission that Secretary Salazar has announced to take on the challenge of making these substantive changes immediately.”

Click here for the full release from the Cobell settlement’s website. The Department of Interior has also posted its take on the settlement online. See the Department of Interior website for further information.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 18, 2009 8:30 pm

    This is indeed bittersweet. How many have passed away penniless because of the government's failure to keep track of the "trust assets". How many of the tribes who lost their recognized status due to similar accounting problems have the monies owed for flooded lands in this pay-out, money we will never see because the government refuses to recognize the people they are supposed to represent. The Winnemem Wintu applaud Eloise and the co-plaintiffs on their ability to win, no matter the size of the pay, you won and are symbols of tribal people and our ability to withstand the winds that blow against us.Mark FrancoHeadmanWinnemem Wintu Tribe

  2. January 12, 2010 9:46 pm

    I am not native american by birth, but am of Lakhota heart. I am so saddened by this 'necessity' that my heart grieves. Whatever parity this brings I hope that it can begin a healing to those who had so much taken from them and to the families and communities affected, as well as our nation and world at large. I am truly sorry that this has happened. Pilamaye to those have had to make this difficult decision and to all of those who walked before them. Mitakuye Oyasin.


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