WASHINGTON â€” The U.S. House gave final congressional approval on Tuesday to a $3.4 billion settlement with American Indians whose government trust accounts were mismanaged for more than a century.
President Barack Obama hailed the vote on the bill and is expected to sign it, leaving to a federal judge here to determine how the money will be divided among more than 300,000 individual Indians, including an estimated 50,000 in Oklahoma.
The bill, which passed 256 to 152, also includes a settlement with black farmers who sued over discrimination in federal farm programs and settlements with four separate tribes over water rights.
Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit that was filed in 1996, said congressional approval was a monumental step â€œto remove a stain on our national honor and create a better future for Indians as our government begins to make some amends for grave past
â€œWhile the money is not as much as we believe we are entitled to, there was no end in sight to this litigation and the settlement will be recognized by Native People as an acknowledgment by the federal government that it wronged them by its mismanagement of Indian money and Indian lands.â€
Cobell a member of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, thanked Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, among other lawmakers, for his work on getting the settlement through Congress.
Cole, a Chickasaw, said in a speech on the House floor that the settlement was a bargain for U.S. taxpayers. The government has already spent nearly $1 billion fighting the lawsuit, he said, and the Indians could have ultimately won far more than the amount negotiated by the Obama administration.
Moreover, he said, the settlement was about â€œcorrecting historic wrongs that never should have occurred in the first place.â€
The trust accounts hold the proceeds from leases on individual Indian lands for such uses as oil and gas drilling, grazing and timber cutting. Two federal judges and a federal appeals court found that the government failed to manage the accounts, depriving Indians of income.
Of the settlement amount, $1.5 billion will be divided among Indian account holders.
The rest will be used to buy up land that has been divided numerous times among heirs over the last century to the point that some parcels generate no money but must still be administered by the government.