by Mary Clare Jalonick
WASHINGTON (AP) – The U.S. government has proposed paying $7 billion to partly settle lawsuits alleging mismanagement of native trust lands.
The offer met with immediate objections from native plaintiffs. At issue is a decade-old lawsuit by natives against the government alleging the government mismanaged more than $100 billion in oil, gas, timber and other royalties held in trust from their lands dating from 1887.
The litigation, filed in 1996 by Elouise Cobell, a Blackfoot, deals with individual natives’ lands. Several tribes also have sued for mismanagement of their lands.
Democratic U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, chairman of the Senate Indian affairs committee, said he will hold hearings on the settlement offer, which he said marks the first time the government has acknowledged a multibillion-dollar liability in the case.
“That is a significant admission,” Dorgan said, adding he believes the conditions attached to the settlement offer will be controversial.
Associate deputy interior secretary James Cason, who has overseen native issues in past years, took issue with Dorgan’s words.
He said the proposal is not an admission but a “recognition that where we are right now is not very productive.”
Cobell and one of her lawyers, Keith Harper, said the Interior Department is asking for too much.
Under terms of the offer, the government would pay $7 billion over 10 years, without interest. In exchange for the money, all tribal and individual mismanagement claims against the government would be dropped and the government would be relieved of future liability.
The proposal also would end, over a period of 10 years, most of the government’s responsibilities to manage native trust lands and would consolidate ownership of native lands, which are now often held by many people.
Cason said roughly one-half of the $7 billion would go toward settling individual and tribal claims and the other half would go toward the other proposals.
U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales sent the proposal to Dorgan last week, saying they strongly support comprehensive legislation that would help the parties move “from a litigation-oriented relationship to one of economic prosperity, empowerment and self-reliance for tribes and individual Indians.”
Harper said the proposal is an insult.
“There’s no sum specific for how much is going to be used for Cobell,” he said.
“It’s pennies on the dollar.”
He said the plaintiffs estimate the government’s liability could exceed $100 billion, although they have in the past considered settling for less.
Cobell said the government is trying to do too much at once.
“It’s not fair to throw every problem that exists in Indian country that has been created by the Department of Interior into our lawsuit,” she said.
“This lawsuit is about individual Indians and accounting.”