(CN) – The federal government has agreed to pay $3.4 billion to settle claims that it mismanaged trust funds for Native Americans for more than a century. The 13-year legal battle featured scorching orders from U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, who cited two Interior Secretaries for contempt, then was removed from the case in 2006 by the Bush administration.
Judge James Robertson is said to have brokered the deal that was reached late Monday. The settlement involves oil, gas, mineral and other royalties from more than 50 million acres of tribal lands that the Interior Department was supposed to have been holding in trust since 1887.
The settlement allows $1.4 billion to be distributed so that each member of the class will get $1,000, with the rest distributed according to land ownership. Legal fees would be taken from the settlement.
A $2 billion trust fund would be set up to buy and consolidate fractional plots. In the long, bizarre and unjust treatment of tribes and their members, some plots of land were allotted to individuals; generations later, descendants of the allottee may own less than an acre of a now virtually worthless plot, and the federal government may spend more money administering payments each year than the entire plot is worth.
Elouise Cobell, a Blackfoot, filed the original class action in 1996.
The settlement almost surely lowballs the amount of money lost or stolen outright from the tribes since 1887, when the allotment system began. It was the manifest injustice for decades, combined with the arrogant stonewalling of modern administrations and their Interior and Justice Departments, that led to Judge Lamberth’s repeated denunciations of the government, and his removal from the case.