$3.4 billion Indian trust settlement reached

After nearly fifteen years of litigation, the class action litigation initiated by key plaintiff Elouise Cobell v. Salazar against the Department of Interior settled for $3.4 billion. In December 2010, President Barack Obama signed legislation authorizing the imbursement of funds to eligible claimants.

The case began in 1996 when key plaintiff Elouise Cobell and 500,000 American Indians filed a suit against the federal government. The plaintiffs maintain that the Interior Department did not keep an accurate accounting of what went into and out of Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts, which were to be set up for Alaska Native and American Indian people to hold.

The lawsuit also was intended to force the federal government to conduct an accurate accounting of IIMs and to reform the recordkeeping system going forward. Total estimates for the discrepancies at one point were alleged to be as high as $100 billion. The settlement was brokered by Congress, and on December 8, 2010,

President Obama signed legislation approving the $3.4 billion settlement of Cobell v. Salazar. On December 21, 2010, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia granted preliminary approval to begin the process of disbursing the settlement funds. A court-appointed media company recently started a campaign to notify hundreds of thousands of Alaska Native and American Indian individuals that they may be beneficiaries of the settlement.

A special website, www.indiantrust.com, was established to provide information about the settlement and the legal rights of class action members. The settlement provides for a $1.5 billion fund to compensate an estimated 500,000 affected individual trust beneficiaries who have or had IIM accounts or own trust land, and creates two groups of class action members eligible to receive money from the fund-the historical accounting class and the trust administration class. The historical accounting class comprises individual Alaska Native and American Indians who were alive on Sept. 30, 2009, who had an open IIM account anytime between Oct. 25, 1994 and Sept. 30, 2009, and whose account had at least one cash transaction.

The trust administration class comprises individual Alaska Native and American Indians alive on Sept. 30, 2009, who had an IIM Account at any time from 1985 through Sept. 30, 2009, recorded in currently available electronic data in federal government systems, as well as individual Alaska Native and American Indians who, as of Sept. 30, 2009, had a recorded or demonstrable interest in land held in trust or restricted status. The estates of deceased class action members will also receive a settlement distribution if the deceased beneficiary’s account was open as of September 30, 2009, or if their land interest was open in probate as of that date. Other eligibility conditions and requirements for each class are detailed in the settlement agreement.

The remaining $1.9 billion will fund a DOI program to buy fractionated interests in trust or restricted land from willing sellers to benefit tribal communities and aid in land consolidation, and depending on the level of participation in the land consolidation program, up to $60 million will be set aside to provide higher education scholarships for Alaska Native and American Indian youth.

Is the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians (OST) looking for you?

OST is seeking current addresses for a number of IIM account holders. These account holders have either interests in lands and/or funds held by OST. To find out if OST is looking for you, please visit www.ost.doi.gov/index.html, call (888) 678-6836 or write to Office of Special Trustee, attn: Trust Beneficiary Call Center, 4400 Masthead Street NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109.