Oklahoma Indians ready to receive settlement checks in class-action suit
BY LENZY KREHBIEL-BURTON World Correspondent
Wednesday, November 28, 2012
11/28/12 at 4:38 AM
Julia Lookout won't believe it until the check arrives in the mail.
Lookout is one of 50,000 American Indians across Oklahoma who were among the 500,000 plaintiffs in the Cobell v. Salazar class-action lawsuit.
Initially filed in June 1996 by Blackfeet Nation citizen Elouise Cobell, the suit alleged that the Department of the Interior mismanaged billions of dollars in Indian trust funds and accounts. On Monday, officials with the Department of the Interior announced that the checks would start going out soon because an appeals period has ended.
"I'm still a little gun-shy when they (federal officials) say it's over, because they've said numerous times that it's over," Lookout, an Osage Nation citizen, said. "With the judicial system, you never know whether someone will find a loophole. However, this time, I'm a little less hesitant."
The $3.4 billion settlement was announced in December 2009 and was subject to congressional appeal and appeals from some of the plaintiffs over the last three years.
"This marks the historic conclusion of a contentious and long running period of litigation," said Hilary Tompkins, Solicitor for the Department of the Interior. "Through the hard work and good will of plaintiffs, Interior and Treasury officials and Department of Justice counsel, we are turning a new page and look forward to collaboratively working with Indian country to manage these important funds and assets."
The settlement will pay $1.5 billion to two classes of individual beneficiaries, with members of one class receiving $1,000 and members of the other class receiving $800 plus a share of the balance of the settlement funds as calculated by a formula based on the activity in their trust accounts.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs have said the tax-free payments could start being mailed within two weeks, pending certification of the settlement by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
The remaining $1.9 billion will be used to establish a fund for the voluntary consolidation of trust land where the ownership has been fractured as land was passed from generation to generation. As much as $60 million of the fund can be used to provide scholarships for American Indians and Alaska Natives to attend college or vocation school.
Tribal governments will not share in the settlement, as the suit specifically addresses the federal government's handling of land in trust for individual tribal citizens.
A former tribal government employee, Lookout's initial claim stems from an individual account she inherited as a child from her grandparent. She plans to put her check toward retirement, but she wishes the decision could have been handed down sooner so that more people could have benefitted.
Original Print Headline: Tribal members are eager for suit settlement checks