U.S. Moves To Settle American Indian Suit For $3.4B

Under an agreement announced Tuesday that still needs congressional approval, the Interior Department will distribute $1.4 billion to more than 300,000 tribe members to compensate them for historical accounting claims. It also will spend $2 billion to buy back and consolidate tribal land lost by previous generations.

The Obama administration says it will spend more than $3 billion to settle a long-running and contentious lawsuit over royalties owed to American Indians.

President Obama hailed the settlement of the case, Cobell v. Salazar, as an important step to reconcile Indian tribes and the federal government.

"As a candidate, I heard from many in Indian Country that the Cobell suit remained a stain on the nation-to-nation relationship I value so much," Obama said in a statement issued by the White House. "I pledged my commitment to resolving this issue, and I am proud that my administration has taken this step today."

Under the agreement announced Tuesday, the Interior Department will distribute $1.4 billion to more than 300,000 tribe members to compensate them for historical accounting claims, and to resolve future claims. The department also will spend $2 billion to buy back and consolidate tribal land lost by previous generations. The program will allow individual tribe members to obtain cash payments for divided land interests and free up the land for the benefit of tribal communities.

The settlement resolves a 13-year-old dispute in which Indian tribes claim they were swindled out of billions of dollars in oil, gas, grazing, timber and other royalties overseen by the Interior Department since 1887.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called the settlement a historic, positive development for Indian country and a major step to reconcile decades of acrimony between Indian tribes and the federal government.

Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe from Montana who was the lead plaintiff in the case, called the proposed settlement crucial for hundreds of thousand of Native Americans who have suffered for more than a century through mismanagement of the Indian trust funds.

Cobell said she is hopeful that the settlement can "help break the cycle of poverty that has held too many families in poverty for generations."

The proposed settlement still must be approved by Congress and a federal court judge. Copyright 2009 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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