WASHINGTON — Nearly two years after Congress approved a settlement in the long-running lawsuit over individual Indian trust accounts, the federal government is preparing to send out checks to nearly 500,000 American Indians, including an estimated 50,000 in Oklahoma.
The U.S. Interior Department announced on Monday that disbursement of $1.4 billion will begin, now that legal challenges to the historic settlement have ended. Lawyers for the Indian trust account holders said the first payments should be distributed before the end of the year.
Those tax-free payments of $1,000 will be sent to about 350,000 beneficiaries, the lawyers said.
“I welcome the final approval of the Cobell settlement agreement, clearing the way for reconciliation between the trust beneficiaries and the federal government,” President Barack Obama said Monday.
“While Elouise Cobell, the named plaintiff in this case is no longer with us, her legacy will be a renewed commitment to our trust relationship with Indian Country.”
Cobell was the driving force behind the lawsuit, filed here in 1996 to force the U.S. government to improve its management of the trust accounts holding the proceeds from land sales, oil and gas leasing, grazing and other activities.
The federal government fought the Indian account holders for years in a case that went through three judges and numerous appeals. The Obama administration brokered a settlement that was approved by Congress in late 2010 and by a federal judge in August 2011.
Payments have been delayed by four account holders who challenged the settlement. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a challenge last month, paving the way for the payments to begin.
Of the $3.4 billion settlement, more than $1.4 billion will be used to make payments to Indians who have or had trust accounts within certain date ranges. For many, the payment will be a flat $1,000, while others will get additional amounts based on how much revenue was received in their accounts.
The settlement includes another $1.9 billion to buy parcels of land that have been divided up numerous times over generations and don't generate enough income to justify the management costs.