“Indian leaders have offered to settle the largest class action lawsuit against the federal government in US history. Several prominent Native American leaders united this week in a historic effort to resolve a struggle dating back more than 100 years. The issue is the federal government’s care of trust funds belonging to Native Americans. The result is a set of 50 principles adopted by a national tribal task force to change how the Department of Interior does business with Indian country.
Trust funds were set up for Native Americans in 1887 under the General Allotment Act. The policy aimed to absorb Indians into American society by breaking up tribally owned lands. Congress divided 90 million acres of reservation land into individualized parcels called allotments. Congress awarded allotments to each tribal member, but viewed Native Americans as incompetent to manage their own affairs or resources. The federal government took complete charge of the Indians’ lands and leased the allotments to oil, gas, timber, grazing and mining interests. The money was supposed to be passed along to the Indians, but the Bureau of Indian Affairs often failed to do so. Lease payments weren’t collected and when they were, the money went elsewhere. Native Americans have never received all the money due, despite constant complaints and numerous investigations. Some $300 million a year flows into the trust accounts.
In 1996, the largest class-action lawsuit ever launched against the government was filed on behalf of 300,000 trust-fund beneficiaries. Cobell vs. Norton challenges the federal government to account for the billions of dollars held in trust since the late 19th century. The case has dragged on for 9 years. A federal judge hearing the case in 1999 said the accounts were so botched that it was impossible to know what was owed to whom. The court was placed in charge of overseeing the process of fixing the trust funds.
This week, leaders of the Osage, Blackfeet, Navajo, and Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations converged in Washington to announce a set of guiding plans for reform. This comes after urgings from Senate and House members. Sens John McCain of Arizona and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota are now expected to introduce legislation for a settlement in the Cobell case and trust reform. The inter-tribal coalition presented a settlement amount of $27.5 billion as part of the map for reform.”