Ed. Note: WhiteHouse.gov just launched a new page dedicated to the Native American community, view it here.
An historic court action on June 20 signaled the beginning of a new era in the U.S. Government’s relations with American Indian communities.
By approving the $3.4 billion settlement of the Cobell v. Salazar lawsuit, U.S. Senior District Judge Thomas F. Hogan paved the way for payments to as many as a half a million American Indians to resolve their class-action litigation regarding the federal government’s management of their individual trust accounts and assets.
A fund of $1.5 billion will be used to compensate class members for their claims regarding potential mismanagement of their trust funds and assets and historical accounting. The agreement also establishes a $1.9 billion fund for the voluntary buy-back and consolidation of fractionated land interests, which have been proliferating through succeeding generations. The program, to be administered by the Department of the Interior, provides individual American Indians an opportunity to obtain cash payments for small divided land interests and free up the “fractionated” land for the benefit of tribal communities. The settlement also provides for a Indian Education Scholarship Fund of up to $60 million for the benefit of American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Judge Hogan’s decision that the settlement is fair and reasonable removed a cloud that had been cast over the federal government’s relationship with American Indians. His ruling not only sets the stage for the final resolution of the contentious 15-year litigation, but also honorably and responsibly turns the page on an unfortunate chapter in the Department’s history.
Reaching a final settlement has been a top priority of this Administration, demonstrating President Obama's commitment to reconciliation and empowerment for American Indian nations.
The contributions of Interior’s Deputy Secretary David J. Hayes and Interior’s Solicitor Hilary Tompkins in achieving the negotiated settlement were invaluable.
Deputy Secretary Hayes has begun scheduling regional consultation meetings with tribal leaders to begin discussions on the land consolidation component of the settlement. These discussions will provide valuable input in developing and implementing a strategy to benefit tribal communities and help free up trust lands. The process is fundamental to respecting the government-to-government relationship with the tribes.
In a deeper sense, the Cobell settlement marks a new beginning – one of true trust reform. The status quo is not acceptable; Interior is committed to administering its responsibilities in a more pro-active, transparent and customer-friendly manner. To that end, the Department will be establishing a Secretarial Commission on Indian Trust Administration and Reform that will undertake a forward-looking, comprehensive evaluation of how the Department manages and administers its trust responsibilities for the First Americans.
Ken Salazar is Secretary of the Interior.