Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Federal government to pay $3.4 billion to settle Indian trust claims

Read this report by Charlie Savage in the New York Times. This settles a class-action lawsuit filed in 1996 and in which 300,000 American Indians have a stake. Savage explains the suit's basis--essentially that the federal government mismanaged trust accounts of which Indians were beneficiaries:

The dispute arises from a system dating to 1887 under which the government set up trusts to manage tens of millions of acres of land owned by individual American Indians and by tribes. The acreage is scattered across the country with the heaviest concentration in Western states.

The Interior Department manages leases on the land for activities like mining, livestock grazing, timber harvesting and drilling for oil and gas. It then distributes the revenue raised by those leases to the American Indians.

One aspect of the problem is that ownership of the Indian lands has become "fractionalized" with each successive generation. Savage gives the example of a 40-acre parcel of land worth $20,000 in which 439 persons have an interest. Fees to manage so many trusts are as much as $40,000, which eats into the prophets the shareholders might otherwise enjoy. The settlement will seek to alleviate this problem, in part by establishing a $2 billion fund to buy out those who are willing to sell their interests.

1 comment:

Spec said...

The underlying case, Cobell, is one of the true victories in Native law. The Bush admin tried to derail the case by replacing the judge, but their choice told them exactly the same thing. 3.4b seems like a lot but some estimates have put the money lost at 100b+ over the past century. What is hinted at in the piece is that while this may settle the lawsuit, it doesn't (at least the article doesn't mention this) fix the Indian Account system.

A solution that would help begin to address part of the problem from the Indian perspective would be the increase in the use of actual Wills. In many Indian cultures talking about death is taboo and a will is talking about death. Add that to higher illiteracy rates, very few actual Indian lawyers per capita, and the extreme rural nature of many Indian's lives, this is a major problem. In addition, the BIA is the agency that probates Indian estates and they are around 20 years behind. This is one of the major reasons why you have the fractionalization of estates and this add to the "patchwork" problem on many Reservations.

So while the money is great, really great, I want to see substantive structural changes in order for there to be long-lasting justice for Indians.