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 here 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 this time.
The settlement totals $3.4 billion, and is the largest class action lawsuit against the federal government.
David Smith is one of the attorneys who represented Cobell and the other plaintiffs in the suit.
“There has never been a suit quite like this, and it dwarfs any prior settlement of Native American interests," Smith says.
American Indians will receive $1,000 checks in the next few weeks. In Washington, almost 50,000 will receive the money. 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 to file a claim.
Smith says the multi-billion dollar settlement could have been higher.
“We argued all along: that payment should be higher. 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; this is obviously significantly higher.”
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in a news release 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