Native Americans Get a Little Justice in Trust Lawsuit, Maybe

Well, after a century or more of ripping off Native Americans’ trust accounts the U.S. government, that is the U.S. Justice Department, has finally agreed to a

a $3 billion settlement with Indian tribes. This marks the end of a 13-year lawsuit brought against the government by Indian tribes over billions of dollars in valuable land and oil royalties. The class action lawsuit Cobell v. Salazar alleged that the federal government mismanaged more than 300,000 American Indian trust accounts for more than a century. The American Indians claimed they were deprived of money they should have received for sale or usage of land for oil, gas, grazing and timber overseen by the Interior Department since 1887.

Under this agreement half a million account holders will receive some compensation, plus a modest Indian Education Scholarship Fund, possibly as much as $60 million, will be set up for Native American youth. All of this is conditioned of course on the court and the Congress agreeing.

Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff and executive director of the Native American Community Development Corp. (and a tireless campaigner for this justice) pointed out in this NPR report that numerous

plaintiffs have died since the suit began to wind its way through the courts in 1996. The original lawsuit was filed by Cobell and four other Indians on behalf of present and past beneficiaries of individual Indian trust accounts, including 300,000 then-current IIM account holders.

I have summarized some of this lawsuit’s history and historical contextin chapter six here:

In this lawsuit these Indian plaintiffs have sought a financial accounting and reform of the government’s trust account system, which had been mismanaged for a century. To this point in time, the U.S. government has fought their lawsuit. Soon after it filed, a federal judge ordered the departments of Interior and Treasury to produce records for the trust accounts for the named plaintiffs, which they did not do. These trust accounts stem from land allotments made to individual Indians in the nineteenth century. Profits from the land—such as leasing fees and royalties for oil, logging, and other land uses—should have been held in trust by the government, but poor or no records were kept. A federal judge referred to this as “fiscal and government irresponsibility.” In 2006 an Indian Trust Reform Act was introduced in Congress, but has yet to pass. If passed, this legislation would have provided $8 billion as a settlement (plaintiffs have requested $47 billion) to individual trust account holders and give some Indian groups control over trust assets on reservations.

The federal government gets off very easy in this settlement, and Native Americans once again get exploited.


  1. Shari Valentine

    Great headline Joe, nicely put.

    I always have the same unsatisfying response to these sorts of Pyrrhic victories. I think it is a bit like the abused wife. I am supposed to feel better because he brought home flowers and said he was wrong and sorry. And all the while I know he will do it again.

    So let’s see, the U. S. stole the land and resources, and left us with about 10% which you then mismanaged. Your court said you were hopelessly inept. You don’t know how much you stole this time. We asked for 47 Billion, a congressional bill asked for 8 billion and you settle for 3 billion and that is somehow supposed to be progress and demonstration of respect and concern for native peoples…hmmm.

    That is such a perfect statement of how convoluted the relationship of the U. S. to native peoples is and has been. They have probably spent that much or more fighting the lawsuit.

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