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For the last 13 years, the case of Cobell v. Salazar has wound its way through the United States District Court for the District of Columbia like a latter-day version of Dickens's Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. The defendants — the secretaries of interior, Treasury, and the Interior Department's chief of Indian affairs — have changed over the years, and so has the judge. Now, at last, a settlement has been reached. The federal government has agreed to pay $3.4 billion to settle claims that it had shortchanged accounts it has held in trust since the 19th century for hundreds of thousands of American Indians.


The agreement would pay $1.4 billion directly to individual holders of the trusts. It would also set up a $2 billion fund to buy fractional shares in the trusts from willing sellers in an effort to consolidate fragments of tribal land into more profitable holdings.


Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff and most visible symbol in the case, said she thought the Indians were owed more. But, she acknowledged, the number of elderly claimants had dwindled and further litigation would only mean the deaths of more of the very people who were meant to benefit from the trusts.


The trusts are a legacy of an 1887 law that divided some tribal lands among individuals and placed the lands in federally administered trusts. The federal government then leased the land for mining, grazing and other purposes, returning the proceeds to the trusts. Over time, records were lost, mishandled and destroyed, and the trusts were divided into tinier and tinier pieces as they were passed down to descendants.


The $3.4 billion is a mere fraction of the trusts' estimated value, but given the pressure of time, fiscal realities and the tendency of Congress to try to legislate away the problem, this is the best solution likely and at least partial atonement for a major historical default by the federal government. The agreement still needs approval by Congress and the federal courts. After more than a century of delay and obstruction, both should move quickly, followed by swift and efficient administration of the settlement by the Interior Department.

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Category Civil Law, Other Articles by - Raj Kumar Makkad