Obama Signs Cobell Settlement

The settlement resolving Cobell v. Salazar, a 14-year class-action lawsuit against the federal government for mismanagement of Indian trust accounts, is just about a done deal.

President Obama signed off on it late yesterday afternoon when he signed the Claims Resettlement Act of 2010 (H.R. 4783), legislation approved by the U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 30 and by the Senate on Nov. 19. (The bill also contains settlements for four separate tribal water rights suits and the Pigford II suit, brought by African American farmers.)

The only step left is a preliminary approval hearing with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which will be held Dec. 21, 2010.

Obama said during the signing, “After years of delay, this bill will provide a small measure of justice to Native Americans whose funds were held in trust by a government charged with looking out for them. And it represents a major step forward in my administration’s efforts to fulfill our responsibilities and strengthen our government-to-government relationship with the tribal nations.”

Under the terms of the settlement, the federal government will create a $1.5 billion Trust Accounting and Administration Fund and a $1.9 billion Trust Land Consolidation Fund that will provide for the voluntary buy-back and consolidation of fractionated land interests, which will help reduce the number of new trust accounts that the federal government has to maintain.

It will also create a $60 million federal scholarship fund to improve access to higher education for Indian youth and includes a commitment by the federal government to appoint a commission that will oversee and monitor specific improvements in the Interior’s accounting for and management of individual Indian trust accounts and trust assets.

The agreement creates two groups of people eligible to receive settlement money: the Historical Accounting Class and the Trust Administration Class. The Historical Accounting class includes those alive on Sept. 30, 2009, who had at least one transaction in an open Individual Indian Money (IIM) Account between Oct. 25, 1994, and Sept. 30, 2009. The Trust Administration Class includes individual beneficiaries alive on Sept. 30, 2009 who have or had IIM Accounts dating from approximately 1985 as well as individual Indians who as of Sept. 30, 2009, had a recorded or demonstrable interest in land held in trust or restricted status.

Elouise Cobell is one of five Indian claimants who filed the suit in 1996 against the Secretaries of the Interior, Treasury and the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs on behalf of all present and past individual Indian trust beneficiaries, including more than 300,000 then-current IIM account holders.

In a recently issued press release announcing the settlement, Cobell, who is currently executive Director of the Native American Community Development Corporation, described the settlement as a “bittersweet victory.”

“Indians did not receive the full financial settlement they deserved, but we achieved the best settlement we could. … It will mean a great deal to the tens of thousands of impoverished Indians entitled to share in its financial fruits as well as to the Indian youth whose dreams for a better life including the possibility of one day attending college can now be realized,” she said.

The case may very well be the largest ever filed against the federal government. Tried in the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia numerous times from 1998 and 2008, it involved more than 3,600 filings and millions of pages of discovery, 80 published opinions and 11 appellate decisions.

For more information about the settlement or information and directions on how to register to determine eligibility in each class, go to CobellSettlement.com or call 800-961-6109.

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