In 1996, five American Indians filed a lawsuit against the federal government seeking money owed to them and “all persons similarly situated.”
In 2009, a settlement agreement was reached and on Dec. 8, 2010, President Obama signed legislation approving the $3.4 billion Indian Trust Settlement.
As of May 2014, many beneficiaries are still waiting for the funds they are due.
This week, counsel for the class action lawsuit filed a motion with the United States District Court for the District of Columbia setting forth a plan for the distribution of the payments. Next week counsel plans to file a report summarizing the status of the agreement’s implementation.
The lawsuit involves individual Indian land, funds and other assets held in trust by the federal government, and courts have decided that the government has violated its trust duties, including a duty to account for Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust funds.
IIM accounts primarily contain money collected by the federal government from farming and grazing leases, timber sales, mining, oil and gas production, and other activities on trust land. The majority of individual Indian trust beneficiaries are expected to receive at least $1,500.
The settlement has resolved claims that the government violated its duties by mismanaging individual Indian trust funds and other assets, improperly accounting for those funds and mismanaging trust land and other assets.
The settlement establishes funds worth about $1.5 billion to pay individual Indian trust beneficiaries for past accounting problems, and another $1.9 billion to buy up interests in trust lands that are owned by many people, often hundreds of owners. The settlement also creates an Indian Education Scholarship fund worth up to $60 million to improve access to higher education for Indian youth.
The 1996 complaint alleged that the defendants—U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbit, Assistant Secretary of the Interior, Indian Affairs Ada Deer, and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin—“grossly mismanaged, and continue to grossly mismanage” the trust by failing to keep an adequate accounting system, destroying records bearing upon their breaches of trust, failing to account to the trust beneficiaries and have lost, dissipated or converted to the United States’ own use of the money.
“We are doing everything we can to make sure that all class members receive their payments as soon as possible,” David Smith and Bill Dorris stated in a letter from Class Counsel, posted on the www.indiantrust.com website. “We understand the frustrations experienced over the timing of payments. Many beneficiaries are in great need of these funds and we will continue to do everything we can to make sure the payments go out as soon as possible.”
The complaint stated that about 300,000 Native Americans are beneficiaries, however, the Washington Post reported this week that the beneficiaries now number more than 490,000.