There has finally been a settlement in the long-running class action case against the US government on behalf of 300,000 Native Americans who had their land and money withheld from them.
- Leading claimant Elouise Cobell

The Obama administration has placed the amount at $US1.4 billion, which Indian Country Today reports will provide all of the members of the action with a $1000 check, if the settlement is approved of course.
On NIT today:
President Barack Obama praised the settlement as “an important step towards a sincere reconciliation” between the federal government and about 300,000 beneficiaries of the law suits.

The agreement must be approved by the US Congress and the US district court of the District of Columbia, but if confirmed it would conclude a bitter class action suit first brought in 1996 by Elouise Cobell.

The suit claims the federal government mismanaged “acres of land and millions of dollars” under 19th-century laws that divided up Indian lands into small parcels that were held in trust for individual Native Americans.

“Between the accounting claims and the trust administration claims, the plaintiff class will receive approximately $US1.4 billion ($A1.5 billion),” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.

The government will also establish a $US2 billion fund to pay for the consolidation of the land under tribal ownership by paying off, on a voluntary basis, the several hundred thousand Indians with interests in the land.

In addition, it will set up a $US60 million ($A65.8 million) scholarship fund for Native American students.

Under the 1887 Dawes Act, tribal lands were broken up into parcels of between 16.2 hectares and 64.7 hectares and allotted to individual native Americans in a what proved to be a failed attempt to encourage their assimilation.

Held in trust by the US government, the land was passed to succeeding generations of heirs of the original owners so some parcels now have thousands of owners.

Thirteen years in litigation, Cobell vs Salazar is one of the largest class action suits ever brought against the US government.”
Indian Country Today reports Elouise Cobell as saying she is thankful for an outcome to an issue that should have been settled long ago.But she mentions that it falls far short of what claimants are really entitled to.
“Cobell said that there is “no doubt” that the settlement amount is “significantly less than the full accounting to with the class members are entitled.”

One settlement figure offered by lawyers for the Indian plaintiffs during legal proceedings was $47 billion.

But Cobell said that as the case has progressed through the years, some class members have passed away, and many are living in extreme poverty.

“A settlement can address the situation,” Cobell said, adding that she doesn’t believe trust reform should stop at this point.

She said she is hopeful Interior will work to permanently correct wrongs so Indian account holders will have knowledge of money that is rightfully theirs.
I am a bit saddened that the offer falls far short of what is needed, considering Australia’s own stolen wages scandal.

In Queensland, the take-it-or-leave-it reparations offer set up by the Beattie government was seen as an insult.

It only came to $55.6 million, a figure far from the $500 million estimated to have been withheld from Aboriginal pockets for decades.

But the interesting thing about the Cobell case has been it reversed the onus of proof back onto US governments.

Australia’s leading expert on stolen wages, Dr Rosalie Kidd, has in the past said that the courts could be the only answer for stolen wages claimants, as it directly puts the governments to account.

Last month, she told NIT that this was the case for the legal action taken by Conrad Yeatman, who lodged a legal action in the QUeensland District Court earlier this year, seeking to recover his decades of lost wages.
“What is new about the unions case is that they are reversing the onus of proof,” Dr Kidd told NIT. 

“They are saying that the government is a trustee of all that money that was taken while under its control.

”It acted as a banker effectively in terms of money coming in from wages, they controlled what they allowed people to spend…

“The case is saying that if you were the legal trustee of that money it is up to you as the government to do several things. 

“Firstly you have to keep a full set of records. They haven’t.
“Then they are not allowed to have a conflict of interest in managing people’s money. Their conduct on savings showed they had a conflict of interest and they used the money for their own benefit.”

Dr Kidd says that the good thing in taking the case is that it takes the “ball out of the government’s court”. 

“I think the government has trashed any political options. There is an overwhelming wealth of incriminating evidence generated from the government’s own files,” Dr Kidd says. 

”I think a court case would allow firstly all of the information to come out into the public. 

“The government has no standing to dictate the terms of what it might do and what it might not do, what it will admit to and what it won’t.
”The court will make its own judgement on whether it is relevant or valid. It takes the ball out of the government’s court.”
It will be interesting to see what comes of the Yeatman case, and whether Aboriginal people may have to go to the courts like Elouise Cobell. Of course, as we have seen in this long running class action, this in itself could take an even longer time.