The first payouts from a historic class-action suit against the federal government will be sent to American Indians within the week. The settlement will be split by 500,000 American Indians, including many in the Northwest.
Lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell sued the federal government 16 years ago. As treasurer of the Blackfoot Tribe in Montana, she discovered the government had mismanaged individual Indian land held in trust. A settlement was reached in 2009, but a two-year appeals process held up disbursements. Cobell died during that time.
The settlement totals $3.4 billion, and is the largest class action lawsuit against the federal government.
“There has never been a suit quite like this, and it dwarfs any prior settlement of Native American interests,” says David Smith, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the Cobell settlement.
In Washington state, almost 50,000 American Indians will receive $1,000 checks within the next few weeks. Idahoans will see 5,800 payouts, and Oregon natives will see about 9,000 checks.
The $1,000 disbursements are the first part of the suit, and represent acknowledgement by the government that it violated a land trust set up in 1887. A second part to the settlement means that more checks will likely be paid out this summer. Smith says people who believe the government may have leased or sold their land at lower than market values rates have until March 1, 2013 to file a claim.
Smith says the multi-billion dollar settlement could have been higher.“We argued all along: that payment should be higher," Smith says.
"More recent court decisions in the litigation have sort of limited the amount that could be recovered. At one time there was an award by the district court of only $400 million; [the $3.4 billion settlement] is obviously significantly higher.”
In a news release, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said the Cobell settlement, “has the potential to profoundly change and improve the lives of American Indians and the administration of American Indian trusts.”
Copyright 2012 Boise State Public Radio