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Native American Land Suit Reaches "Landmark" Settlement

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By Tanya Roth, Esq. on December 15, 2009 10:15 AM

Last Tuesday, the U.S. government and a class of Native American plaintiffs settled a 19 year-old suit over land trust management for the sum of $3.4 billion dollars. The suit over the management of Indian land began in 1996, but is based on disputes over a system that began in 1887. 

The system responsible for the suit dates to the 19th century and began when the government divided Indian lands into parcels assigned to individual tribe members and then sold off the remaining lands. The Dept. of the Interior is responsible for the management of the Indian Trust lands including overseeing leases for mining, livestock grazing, timber harvesting and drilling for oil and gas. In 2009, the government collected and distributed about $298 million for more than 384,000 individual Indian accounts.

The class of plaintiffs alleges in its suit that the government mismanaged the funds and the Indian accounts are owed more than they have received. Under the settlement, the government will pay $1.4 billion to compensate for past "accounting irregularities," each member of the class will receive $1,000, and the rest of the money would be distributed according to the land owned. Attorneys fees will also be recovered.

The scope of this case is huge. According to the New York Times it has spanned three presidencies and engendered seven trials covering 192 trial days, generated 22 published judicial opinions, and went before a federal appeals court 10 times.

As time has passed, this case has grown more complicated as parcel owners have died, sometimes without wills, leaving ever more heirs and ensuing disputes over ownership. Resolution will not only bring the landowners the money they are owed, it will save the taxpayers money as well. The Times reports that "[f]or example, one 40-acre parcel today has 439 owners, most of whom receive less than $1 a year in income from it. The parcel is valued at about $20,000, but it costs the government more than $40,000 a year to administer those trusts."

President Obama is pleased with the resolution of this long running dispute and called the settlement an "important step towards a sincere reconciliation" between the U.S. government and Native Americans. 

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