WASHINGTON — The lead plaintiff in a 12-year-old Indian trust case against the U.S. government says she is already frustrated with the Obama administration's approach to ending the legal battle.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in an interview with The Associated Press this week that he would like to end the lawsuit, and suggested that the outcome of an upcoming federal appeal could lead to a settlement between the two parties. Lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell calls Salazar's comments "an insult to Indian people" and if he was serious, the government would settle now.
The long-running suit claims the Indians were swindled out of billions of dollars in oil, gas, grazing, timber and other royalties overseen by the Interior Department since 1887. A district court ruled last year that the Indian plaintiffs are entitled to $455 million, a fraction of the $47 billion they had sought. Both parties have appealed that decision, but a date for arguments has not yet been set.
Salazar, who represented American Indian tribes as a senator from Colorado, said the appellate court's final ruling could be the basis for a settlement between the two sides.
"It may create the framework for us to move forward with some kind of final resolution of the litigation," he said.
He added that resources for Indian schools and law enforcement have suffered because the case has dragged on for so long.
"What I do want to do is I want to get the matter resolved, and I say this because I think it's been a blemish on the United States and the Department of Interior for such a long time," he said.
Cobell said a desire to end the case is not enough, as many of the Indian plaintiffs have died or are nearing the end of their lives. She said she wants Salazar to bring together various parts of government _ the Department of Justice and the Office of Management and Budget, for example _ to have a conversation with the plaintiffs.
"Let's talk settlement, serious settlement," she said. "I don't want words that say 'let's resolve it.'"
She said she is frustrated watching the government bail out banks and other institutions as American Indians continue to fight for money they feel they are owed.
"I don't want us Indian people to be ignored anymore," she said.
In 1994, Congress demanded that the Interior Department fulfill an obligation to account for money received and distributed. Two years later, when account statements still had not been reconciled, Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe from Montana, joined with others in suing.
Because many of the records have been lost or destroyed, it has been up to the court to decide how to best estimate how much individual Indians should be paid, or how the money should be accounted for.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Arizona's John McCain, R-Ariz., tried to prompt a settlement in the case several years ago, when McCain led the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. But they could not get the two sides to agree on an amount.
The class-action suit deals with individual Indians' lands and covers about 500,000 Indians and their heirs. Several tribes have sued separately, claiming mismanagement of their lands.