MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
At long last, a settlement has been reached. Those were the words from President Obama statement on a major settlement announced today. More than a decade, ago American Indians sued the federal government saying that had been cheated out of billions of dollars. Today, the government said it will pay $3.4 billion to resolve that lawsuit. In a moment we'll hear from the lead plaintiff, Elouise Cobell, but first NPR's Ari Shapiro lays out the settlement.
ARI SHAPIRO: There are epic lawsuits and then there is this case.
Mr. ERIC HOLDER (Attorney General, U.S.): Cobell versus Salazar was one of the largest class actions ever brought against the United States government.
SHAPIRO: Attorney General Eric Holder.
Mr. HOLDER: What began in 1996 has seen seven full trials constituting 192 trial days, has resulted in 22 published judicial decisions, has been up to the Court of Appeals ten times and has been the subject of intense and sometimes difficult litigation.
SHAPIRO: But Holder said today we turned the page. Elouise Cobell was the lead plaintiff in the suit. She said she expected to have a resolution ten years ago.
Ms. ELOUISE COBELL (Plaintiff, Cobell v. Salazar): Today we have an administration that is listening to us, an administration willing to admit the wrongdoings of the past and settle this matter to benefit those who had to do without access to their own money for way too long.
SHAPIRO: The problem started in 1887. That's when Congress passed a law called the Dawes Act, allocating parcels of reservation land across the country to individual Native Americans. The government would use the land for timber, mining, oil and other purposes, and then they were supposed to distribute the profits to the Indian landowners. But over the years the Indians did not get the money. So, now the government says it will divide $1.4 billion among the plaintiffs, about a thousand dollars per person. Elouise Cobell said the settlement is far less than the Native Americans are entitled to but she and her fellow plaintiffs felt they had to settle now. Elders are dying she said. And many account holders live in their direst poverty.
Ms. COBELL: And the settlement can began to address that extreme situation and provide some hope and a better quality of life for their remaining years.
SHAPIRO: Over the decades, the land that the government allocated to Indians was divided into smaller and smaller parcels as it was handed down through the generations. Many parcels are so small that they generate less than a dollar year but it costs the government a lot of money to administer the program. So, under the settlement the government will spend $2 billion to buy back land from individual owners who are willing to sell. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he is optimistic that people will participate because there is an incentive. As people sell back their land, money will go into a higher education scholarship fund.
Secretary KEN SALAZAR (Department of the Interior): Native Americans very much believe that a keystone to their future is opportunity that comes through education for their children.
SHAPIRO: But this is not final yet. Congress and the courts still have to sign off on the agreement. Secretary Salazar who used to be a senator from Colorado said he was on Capitol Hill this morning lobbying his former colleagues.
Mr. SALAZAR: My hope is we get it done by the end of the year, now in December, this month, at least in terms of the legislative approval.
SHAPIRO: In a statement, President Obama said: As a candidate, I heard from many in Indian country that the Cobell suit remained a stain on the nation to nation relationship I value so much. Mr. Obama urged Congress to act quickly to sign off on the settlement. The court approval may take longer but no one expects it to be a major obstacle. In fact, one person involved in the negotiations said the single person most responsible for the resolution of this lawsuit was the judge, James Robertson. The source said Judge Robertson brought both sides into his chambers over this summer and said: You can litigate this for another 10 years or you can resolve it now. I want you to resolve it.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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