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Payback time?



With compounded interest included, the federal government owes individual Indian trust accounts about $137 billion, says Eloise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet tribe and lead plaintiff in the largest class-action lawsuit against the federal government in U.S. history. Cobell and other prominent American Indian leaders gathered in Washington D.C. last week to offer a settlement to the landmark Cobell v. Norton lawsuit after more than nine years of court battles.

The Trust Reform and Cobell Settlement Workgroup Principles lay out a set of legislative principles for reform—in addition to a $27.5 billion cash payment—to resolve past claims.

“The courts, Congress, even the Department of Interior’s own inspector general have found that the government has mismanaged the individual Indian trusts for over a century, breached its duty, permitted rampant fraud, and never accounted for the monies in the trust,” said Cobell in a press release.

In 1996, Cobell filed the suit, commonly known as the Indian trust suit, on behalf of some 500,000 Indians in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. She asked the government to account for the billions of dollars it had held in trust on behalf of those American Indians and their heirs since the late 19th century.

Congressional leaders, including Chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, and vice-chairman Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-ND, approached tribal leaders earlier this year seeking a permanent solution to the trust scandal.

In a recent interview on the “Democracy Now!” television and radio show, Cobell said Indian leaders were happy to take Congress up on the challenge.

“[W]e came together as Indian people—and Indian people across the nation supported the lawsuit 100 percent—and said, ‘This is what it will take for us to settle this case,’” Cobell said.

The principles will act as a road map for Congress to write legislation that would reform the troubled management of Indian land, resources, and monies, and also settle the Cobell v. Norton class action litigation. The complete work group principles can be found at


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