Land Trust Lawsuit - Indian -


Indian Land Trust Lawsuit

On December 12, 2012, the court gave a green signal to commence distribution of payments to American Indians as per the $3.4 billion Indian land trust lawsuit settlement between tribes and the federal government. Federal Judge Thomas Hogan of Washington, D. C., permitted Atlanta-based law firm Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, which represented the litigants, to start the first round of distribution. About 350,000 beneficiaries of 41 native Indian tribes across the United States are expected to receive $1,000 checks. The payments are to be given as part of the 2009 Indian land trust lawsuit settlement, which was filed by Elouise Cobell, a Montana banker, in 1996, alleging mismanagement of land trust royalties by the federal government.

Cobell vs Salazar Lawsuit The Background

Elouise Cobell, who died of cancer last year, filed the Indian land trust lawsuit at a Washington, D.C., court in June 1996 along with four other co-plaintiffs. The class action sought responses and compensation claim against interior and treasury departments of the federal government, citing “ineptness, dishonesty, and delay by federal officials” in accounting, spending, and managing the proceeds from Indian trust assets.

The class action made three types of claims against the federal government.

  • Historical Accounting Claims: The federal government failed to follow effective historical accounting procedure or make a proper analysis of IIM accounts and native Indian trust assets from time to time to prevent the mismanagement.
  • Fund Administration Claims: Inept handling and mismanagement of trust funds contrary to duties and responsibilities.
  • Land Administration Claims: The federal government failed to look after management of the land, natural resources, energy resources, and other resources as part of its trust responsibilities.

The Indian trust lawsuit made the allegation that people who took lease of Indian lands prospered and made significant income from the exploitation of natural resources, while native tribes continued to live in poverty and the government had no accounting of royalties to be deposited with the trust. The trust placed under the federal government also accounts for $400 million in individual Indian money (IIM) and $2.8 billion in tribal funds. According to an estimate, $530 million is collected annually for 1,400 tribal accounts and more than $226 million for 250,000 IIM accounts every year from land leases, sales, and interests. The regulations require conducting of probates for accounts linked to trust assets.

The Indian Land Trust Settlement

In 2008, the court ordered the federal government to pay $455.6 million in compensation to the plaintiffs. On December 8, 2009, the plaintiffs and the federal government reached a $3.4 billion settlement that included royalties for more than 100 years. In 2010, Congress gave its nod to the Claims Resolution Act of 2010 that earmarked the money to be paid, and President Obama signed it.

The settlement included

  • $1.5 billion payment to beneficiaries of two classes, Historical Accounting Class and Trust Administration Class
  • First class members to get $1,000 each and $800 for the second class members
  • $1.9 billion to buyback "fractionated" Indian trust lands and $60 million to fund educational programs for native Indians
  • Reforms in accounting and royalty collection system

Indian Land Trust Complaints

The native Indian tribes have historical grievances against the Interior Department over the management of 2,500 trust accounts. The department looks after 100,000 leases of 56 million acres of land belonging to more than 250 tribes across the United States. Many of these areas are rich in oil, gas, farm production, mines, and timber. While those holding land leases have been garnering huge incomes from these lands, tribes continue to face poverty, lack of educational facilities, and other problems that impact their quality of lives. More than 60 Indian land trust class action lawsuits, filed against the department over lack of due diligence in collection of royalties for trust funds, await decision in various courts.

Other Indian Land Trust Lawsuits

In the past one decade, more than $1.7 billion has been awarded to 65 tribes following the filing of Indian land trust lawsuits. In August 2012, four tribes from Dakota area, Rosebud Sioux tribe, Crow Creek Sioux tribe, Lower Brule Sioux tribe, and Standing Rock Sioux tribe, won $101.4 million following a settlement with the federal government. They were party to an Indian land trust lawsuit filed over the mismanagement and accounting claims relating to land lease and mineral exploitation. A justice department official, Wyn Hornbuckle, informed the press that the authorities were in talks for similar settlements with many more aggravated tribes.

A land trust lawsuit involving the State of Kansas, the federal government, and the Wyandotte Tribe of Oklahoma is undergoing trial. The lawsuit filed in 2011 wants the Interior Department to declare the Park City tract area that the tribe purchased in 1992 a land trust. The litigation came to fore after the state government allowed Peninsula Gaming the exclusive right to start a casino just a few miles from a place earmarked by the Wyandotte Nation for a similar purpose.