Court Hawk
Elouise Cobell
NY Times

Class Action History: American Indian Trust

Cobell v. Salazar, a class action brought against two branches of the American government, was first lodged in 1996 on behalf on Native American Indian trusts. The suit claimed that the American government had mismanaged funds in the land trust as far back as the 1800’s. In 2009, the case was settled, and in 2011 its final approval passed a federal judge.

When the complaint was first lodged, it was seen as something of a longshot. The government practice of leasing out tribal lands for various industries and then distributing some of the revenue back to the natives was the primary point of contention in the lawsuit.

The Suit

The suit in question dealt with the practices of the US government when overseeing funds in a trust meant to cover Native American lands. Elouise Cobell, who served as a treasurer of the Blackfeet Confederacy in the 1980’s and 1990’s, was concerned that the government had mismanaged the funds. After attempts to reform the trusts failed, she turned to a class action on behalf of the Blackfeet.

The defendants named in the suit were the United States Department of the Interior and the United States Department of the Treasury. The plaintiffs asserted that “the government illegally withheld more than $150 billion from Indians whose lands were taken in the 1880s to lease to oil, timber, minerals and other companies for a fee.”

The Settlement

In 2009, a settlement of $3.4 billion was negotiated with the help of the Obama administration. While this is hardly the $150 billion sought by the plaintiffs in the case, it still marked a victory for the native tribes. In 2011, a judge in the District of Columbia granted the final approval for the $3.4 billion settlement, awarding $1,000 payments to nearly 325,000 members of the class in the suit.

The case has been cited as evidence of the growth and success of the Native American self-determination movement. Other results of the suit included the creation of a scholarship fund for natives, as well as spurring modern reform in the Native American Indian Trust. On the whole, the case has been cited as a victory for native tribes.