Settlement of Cobell lawsuit 'bittersweet'
By Cindy Yurth
CHINLE, Dec. 8, 2009
It sounds like a lot of money - indeed, it's the biggest settlement, by far, the federal government has ever paid in a lawsuit.
But when you subtract the legal costs and divide it up among 500,000 people, $1.4 billion is not so much.
That's the amount that will be paid out to holders of the 500,000 individual Indian trust accounts, including about 42,000 Navajos, to settle Cobell v. Salazar, the 13-year-old lawsuit that accuses the federal government of mismanaging assets held in trust for individual Native Americans.
That is, if a U.S. court and Congress approve.
It works out to a base amount of $1,500 for most beneficiaries, plus whatever is left after all the legal bills are paid - divided by the number of people with Individual Indian Trust accounts and other claims to a piece of the pie. It could be years before that amount is known.
However, there will also be an opportunity for allottees to sell their land back to the government to be held in trust for their tribe, and a $60 million Native American scholarship fund.
And a promise from Uncle Sam to do better accounting from here on out by complying with negotiated standards.
"Bittersweet" is how lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell, Blackfeet, described the settlement.
"We have achieved a measure of justice and financial compensation for individual Indians whose trust accounts were mismanaged by our government," said Cobell, executive director of the Native American Community Development Corp., in a press release. "Indians did not receive the full financial settlement they deserved, but we achieved the best settlement we could."
Cobell said she was concerned about the number of plaintiffs who have died since the lawsuit was filed and is glad for a resolution of the case, even though she believes the settlement is far less than the amount lost through the government's mishandling of the trust assets.
"Over the nearly 14 years that I've been visiting reservations to discuss with individual Indians the suit and its slow progress through the federal court system, I've seen a dramatic decline in the number of original Indian account holders," Cobell said.
"Time takes a toll, especially on elders living in abject poverty,” she said. “Many of them died as we continued our struggle to settle this suit. Many more would not survive long to see a financial gain, if we had not settled now."
That sentiment was echoed by Vice President Ben Shelly, quoted in a press release from the Navajo Nation Washington Office.
"This has been a long journey for the Cobell team and the DOI attorneys to negotiate this agreement," Shelly said. "I just hope it's a fair amount for the individual Navajos affected by settlement and help resolve the tribe's own lawsuit regarding mismanagement of trust funds."
That suit is still in litigation.
To read the details of the proposed Cobell settlement and to register to be informed of the results as a member of the plaintiff class, go to www.cobellsettlement.com.
Meanwhile, the Pelt v. Utah case, a sort of mini-Cobell about the state of Utah's alleged mishandling of the Utah Navajo Trust, is in mediation. Pelt attorney Jon Pace said the case seemed close to a settlement last week, but "working out the details" has been slow going.
"There may be a reason this case has dragged on for 18 years," he quipped.
While the resolution of Cobell may have some "indirect" affect on the Pelt negotiations, Pelt is a different animal, according to Pace.
"One of the big differences is they (Cobell plaintiffs) have individual claims, while Pelt is what we call a 'common fund' claim," Pace said. "We have to mediate with a view to the joint common interest in one pool of money."
At least one question involving the Utah Navajo Trust may be cleared up soon, however.
The U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee is holding a hearing tomorrow (Dec. 8) on Utah Republican Robert Bennett's bill to transfer trusteeship of the trust to the Utah Dineh Corp., a nonprofit corporation with an all-Navajo board of directors.
While most of the seven Utah Navajo chapters support Bennett's bill, Aneth Chapter and an organization of Aneth Extension residents called Descendants of K'aayelii do not.
The Navajo Nation has also objected, saying a committee of the Navajo Nation Council should oversee the trust.
The state of Utah resigned its trusteeship last year and asked Congress to appoint a new trustee for the 76-year-old trust, comprised of oil royalties from wells in the Aneth area.