U.S. To Settle Indian Trust Lawsuit

The U.S. government will settle a long-running lawsuit against the Interior Department over its management of Indian assets held in trust. The settlement of more than $3 billion would award each of the Native American plaintiffs about $1,000 each. It would also establish a scholarship fund for Indian students.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

A giant lawsuit the U.S. settled this week, began long ago in the remote reaches of Montana. The suit came from the windswept town of Browning. With a little more than a 1000 people, it's the largest community on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

INSKEEP: From there, the suit grew to represent Indians across the country. They said they were cheated out of huge sums of money. Their lawsuit goes back to the 1990s. Their story goes back much further, to the 19th century.

MONTAGNE: It grows out the days when the U.S. was clearing the frontier of Indians and signing treaties it didn't keep. Yesterday the government reached a settlement. The U.S. agreed to pay $3.4 billion.

Our coverage begins with NPR's Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO: Elouise Cobell is a warrior in the Blackfeet tribe. For 14 years she has been lead plaintiff in this lawsuit, and now it's coming to an end.

Ms. ELOUISE COBELL (Blackfeet Tribe Leader): You almost want to say, like Forrest Gump has said, well, I think I'll go home now.

SHAPIRO: On ALL THINGS CONSIDERED last night, Cobell described her thinking when she first filed the lawsuit.

Ms. COBELL: You know, two years and - at the most, and I'd be ready to go home and, of course, I was very young then. I was 50 years old when I filed this case and I'm 64 years old today.

SHAPIRO: The government has been mismanaging Indian funds for much longer than that. In 1887, Congress passed a law called the Dawes Act giving parcels of reservation land to individual Native Americans. The government used the land for mining, timber grazing, and other purposes. They were supposed to give the profits back to the Indian landowners. But they didn't. Cobell says, for generations, no one was able to do anything about it.

Ms. COBELL: Because a lot of attorneys wouldn't take this case, and that's why so many individual Indians had to let this go on for so long without any justice.

SHAPIRO: But finally an attorney did take the case. Dennis Gingold was a lawyer who had represented big banks for years. He told me the story in a noisy briefing room at the Interior Department. In the mid 1990s, his law partner asked him to meet with the Office of Management and Budget about Indian banking matters.

Mr. DENNIS GINGOLD (Attorney): I assumed it was East Indians, I assumed it was international. Then I go to a meeting and I thought I was in a wrong room when there weren't East Indians or American Indians and the deputy director of OMB says Dennis, you look puzzled but you are in the right room.

SHAPIRO: Elouise Cobell eventually asked Gingold and his partner to represent her and they said yes.

Mr. GINGOLD: We gave her a commitment that no matter what it took, we would do what needs to be done to resolve this for the individual Indians, because it's the dark side of American history and we as lawyers have an obligation to correct it if we can.

SHAPIRO: How much of your time has this case taken up as a percentage of your total practice in the last 14 years?

Mr. GINGOLD: A hundred percent.

SHAPIRO: Really, this has been your sole case for the last 14 years?

Mr. GINGOLD: I haven't had a vacation since December of 1998. I've generally worked seven days a week on this case.

SHAPIRO: Gingold said it takes effort to fight the entire federal government. Here is the rundown of the case that Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli gave at the press conference.

Associate Attorney General TOM PERRELLI (Department of Justice): Thirteen years in court, seven full trials, 192 trial days, 10 rounds at the Court of Appeals to reach this point. I think it's safe to say from many at the department, for our partners at the Department of the Interior, the Department of Treasury, for Ms. Cobell and for the hundreds of thousands of Native Americans who have been awaiting resolution, that today is a remarkable day.

SHAPIRO: The government agreed to pay $1.4 billion to landowners. Each plaintiff will receive about a $1000. The government will use another two billion to buy back parcels of land. They have been divided into smaller and smaller slivers through generations. The Interior Department's David Hayes explained why the government wants to buy the land back. He described one 40 acre parcel.

Mr. DAVID HAYES (Deputy Director, Interior Department): It has 439 owners. It currently produces a $1000 in annual income. Two thirds of the individual Indians receive less than $1 per year from this. The estimated value of the land is $20,000. The administrative cost for the United States Department of the Interior is $40,000 per year.

SHAPIRO: This makes no sense, Hayes said. Some of the money from buying back the parcels will go to a scholarship fund for Indian students. Plaintiff Elouise Cobell says that's one thing she insisted on.

Ms. COBELL: I decided to fight on and I think may be it's in my genes. My great great grandfather was mountain chief and he would not give in when the governments would tell him, oh, you are going to live your lifestyle like this.

SHAPIRO: Congress and the courts still have to sign off on this agreement. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said, he hopes that will happen by the end of the month.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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