WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld the $3.4 billion settlement between the U.S. government and American Indians who sued over the management of their assets, rejecting claims that the scheme for compensating an estimated 500,000 Indians was unfair.
The decision from the appeals court here came nearly a year after the largest class-action settlement in history against the United States was approved by a federal district judge.
Turk Cobell, the son of the lead plaintiff in the case, Elouise Cobell, who died in October, said, “With this ruling, we hope the courts can proceed with its delayed plan to begin distributing proceeds of this settlement to the over 500,000 Native American Trust account beneficiaries.
“Our family, as well as many other members of the class, look forward to finalizing and bringing closure to this case and the settlement.”
Kimberly Craven, a Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate member and an individual Indian trust account holder who challenged the settlement, said Tuesday she had not read the appeals court decision and had not decided whether to appeal it.
“I’m disappointed,” said Craven, of Colorado. “I really think it’s an illegal settlement. This court didn’t agree.”
The appeals court on Tuesday rejected a separate complaint filed by three others, saying some of the objections were addressed in Craven’s objection and others were “utterly without merit.”
About the settlement
The settlement, negotiated by the Obama administration in a case that originated in 1996, would pay lump sums to individual trust account holders — an estimated 50,000 in Oklahoma — and those who had land in trust before certain dates. Some will receive additional amounts based on their holdings.
The settlement also allots $1.9 billion to buy up land owned by individual Indians that has been divided numerous times over decades to the point that its value has been diminished greatly.
The trust accounts, which date back more than a century, hold the proceeds from oil and gas drilling, grazing, timber cutting and other leases on land owned by individual Indians.
Craven contended the settlement produced inequitable divisions of money and wouldn’t give the plaintiffs the equitable relief they originally sought — a historical accounting of their balances. Moreover, she claimed the fact that the judge awarded $2 million to Cobell and a total of $500,000 to three other original plaintiffs in the case created conflicts among the Indians who will get far less in settlement payments.
The appeals court rejected her arguments, saying she offered no evidence that some Indians would be undercompensated and that her claims the settlement took impermissible shortcuts ignored “the history of this hard-fought litigation and the obstacles to producing an historical accounting.”