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Reporting from Native America

Friday
August 29, 2014
Latest post: March 20 5:07 pm

Cobell settlement notifications begin; hundred of thousands expected to benefit

Hundreds of thousands of notices have been sent out to American Indians this week that could be affected by the $3.4 billion class action settlement Cobell v. Salazar, in which a Montana banker sued the federal government over misspent money accounts.

As ordered by the court, and later approved by the legislative and executive branches, a third party firm has launched an effort to notify the potentially hundreds of thousands of American Indians that might have been affected by the mismanaged accounts.

This outreach campaign and upcoming media blitz is alerting people that they could receive payments in the billion dollar settlement. Most will receive about $1,800 but some could receive more, according to the Department of Interior.

A federal judge approved the settlement in December, following a 14-year court battle led by Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet tribe from Browning, Mont.

Those that might have been affected by the case are asked to seek more information at http://www.indiantrust.com, or to call the Indian Trust Settlement Hotline, 1-800-961-6109.

Cobell claimed in her suit that the federal government failed to provide a historical account for Individual Indian Money accounts, money the feds held in trust for Native American landowners in exchange for leasing tribal land. The government either mismanaged the deposits in those accounts or failed altogether to deposit money – royalties for oil, gas, grazing and other leases – owed to tribal members, Cobell said.

The settlement also includes $1.9 billion for the Department of Interior to purchase checkerboard land and return it to tribes as well as up to $60 million for scholarships.

“The Obama administration is continuing to move forward on its agenda to honorably and responsibly address long-standing injustices in Indian Country,” said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in a statement.

Notifying beneficiaries will be a tough task because as many as 500,000 are scattered throughout the nation, Cobell said. There are about 20,000 IIM account holders in Montana for example, with huge amounts also living in Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona.

“I want to make sure every IIM account holder that benefits from this gets the word,” Cobell said.

To do this, court-appointed media companies are sending out letters and putting out newspaper, radio, television and online advertising directing people to the Indian Trust Settlement Web site and hotline, set to debut next week.

The idea is to inform those who have or had government-managed IIM accounts or trust lands about their rights and options concerning this settlement.

Account holders can register to receive a payment, choose to exclude themselves from the settlement and keep their right to sue the federal government over mismanagement claims or submit written comments or objections about settlement terms.

Beneficiaries have to register within 45 days of the court's final approval of the settlement, which is expected to happen in June. In the meantime, a fairness hearing, in which people can object to the Cobell settlement before a federal judge gives the final approval, has been set for April 20.

Those who currently receive IIM account statements don’t have to do anything to receive payment.

Cobell is urging those who didn’t get a notification but still believe they are due payment should contact the law firm handling claims.

As this process moves forward, Cobell said money isn’t the only factor in this settlement. The lawsuit brought trust management for American Indians to the forefront.

“We made some giant steps to identify the issues,” Cobell said. “You stop that behavior in its tracks.”

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Travis Coleman, Northern Ponca, is from Sioux City, Iowa and is a student at the University of Montana. He has written for Reznet since 2003.