Cobell settlement could benefit some Hopi tribal members
KYKOTSMOVI, Ariz. - Members of the Hopi Tribe stand to reap some benefit from an historic settlement totaling more than $1.4 billion in a class-action lawsuit. The lawsuit was over how the federal government handled Indian trust lands as far back as the 19th century.
The lawsuit, filed June 10, 1996 by lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell, claims that the federal government did not fulfill its financial responsibility for the individual Indian trusts resulting in the loss, misdirection, and unaccountability of several billion dollars held in trust by the United States for Indian beneficiaries in Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts.
Under terms of the settlement in Cobell vs. Salazar, the federal government will pay $1.4 billion to hundreds of thousands of Native Americans - no less than $1,500 each - and will create a federal Indian Education Scholarship fund of up to $60 million to improve access to higher education for Indian youth. The scholarship fund will be open to all Native Americans, not just IIM account holders or heirs.
In addition, officials said the federal government will spend $2 billion to untangle the complicated trust system, under which many people can own fractions of a plot of land.
The plan is for the government to buy the fractions until it owns them all, and then allow tribal governments to use the land as they see fit.
Wendell Honani, superintendent of the Hopi Agency, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Keams Canyon, said this week that he is waiting for more specific information on the settlement as to whether any members of the Hopi Tribe qualify for the payments.
"We do have a certain number of individuals who have IIM accounts," Honani said, estimating the total might be about 200.
All told, more than 20,000 Native Americans who live in Arizona hold IMM accounts, according to the Interior Department. Arizona tribes with high numbers of members affected by the settlement include the Navajo, the Tohono O'Odham, the San Carlos Apache, the Gila River Indian Community and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.
The settlement was announced last Tuesday and involves the secretary of the Interior, the assistant secretary of the Interior-Indian Affairs and the secretary of the Treasury. The individual Indian trust accounts relate to land, oil, natural gas, mineral, timber, grazing, water and other resources and rights on or under individual Indian lands.
Congress must pass legislation authorizing the settlement, and a federal judge also must agree to the deal. Officials said most plaintiffs will receive no less than $1,500, though some could get more if a judge determines they are due.
The Department of the Interior is responsible for managing more than 100,000 leases on 56 million acres. For fiscal year 2009, funds from leases, use permits, land sales and income from financial assets, totaling about $298 million (excluding $57 million of transfers from the tribal trust funds), were collected for more than 384,000 open IIM accounts.
If you believe you are an Individual Indian Money (IIM) account holder or heir of an IIM account holder, or have an interest in individual Indian trust land but have not been receiving information on your account or trust land from the government, visit www.cobellsettlement.com/register.php for more information.