WASHINGTON – Senators representing states in Indian Country said at a hearing Thursday they hope to fund the historic settlement of a lawsuit over money owed to American Indians before the end of the year.
The settlement of the 13-year lawsuit,announced last week,can't go into effect until Congress passes legislation to fund $3.4 billion in payments over land disputes.
“My hope is that we can meet the responsibility of doing this by the end of the year,” Sen. Byron Dorgan,D-N.D.,chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee,said in an interview after the hearing. “The president,the administration,the Congress,we've got to find a way to do this.”
The Senate is still in session,but the House is not expected to meet again this year.
Elousie Cobell,the lead plaintiff in the suit,urged the committee to approve the bill as soon as possible so the money can be distributed to individuals by next fall.
“I now ask Congress to swiftly enact the necessary implementing legislation so we can start on the challenges of retribution without further delay,” Cobell said.
In the late 19th century,the federal government started dividing Indian land among individual and held the profits in trust. Over the years,the government has collected billions of dollars for the use of the land in mining,drilling and livestock. The lawsuit accused the government of mismanaging the money owed to the Indian people.
The settlement includes $1.4 billion to be distributed to more than 500,000 people represented by the lawsuit and $2 billion for land consolidation. The settlement also creates a scholarship fund for Indian youth and a commission that would recommend further trust reforms.
Thomas J. Perrelli,associate attorney general,called the settlement a “successful resolution for Native Americans,and for all Americans.”
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said the government can now focus on other issues affecting American Indians,including education,law enforcement and economic development.
“With this settlement we will turn the page on a dark chapter in Indian Country and begin to move forward together towards our common goals,” Salazar said.
Rep. John Barrasso,R-Wyo.,the committee's vice chair,asked if the settlement was fair for people involved in the suit and American taxpayers. Salazar and Perrelli agreed that it is.
Cobell,however,said the Indian people are owed far more for years of mismanagement by the American government.
“There is little doubt this is far less than the full amount to which individual Indians are entitled,” Cobell said. “But we are compelled to settle now by the sobering reality that our class grows smaller each year.”
Cobell said she is concerned that the lawyers who handled the case would not be paid enough.
“We need to pay them a fair amount,” Cobell said in an interview.
Perrelli said the court will decide how much the lawyers should get,but it will probably be 5 to 7 percent of the total settlement.
The committee voted on two bills dealing with related issues. One would allow the interior secretary to take land into trust for Indian tribes,and the other calls for the U.S. government to recognize Native Hawaiians in a way similar to the way it recognizes Indian tribes.