- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2008

It has been 12 years since a group of American Indians sued the government, saying Washington had cheated them out of profits from land royalties since 1887.

On Monday, a federal judge plans to begin hearings to determine how much he thinks the government should pay the Indians. Yet most of those involved in the case expect an appeal, further extending the dispute. On top of that, it is not clear how any award would be paid: Congress may have to set the money aside, a tough sell in a tight budget time.

All the while, the plaintiffs grow older, nearing the end of their lives, uncertain whether even a penny will come their way.

The Indians’ 1996 suit claims they were swindled out of more than $100 billion in oil, gas, grazing, timber and other royalties overseen by the Interior Department since 1887. The Indians rejected a government offer of less than $7 billion last year. Now, they say they are owed $58 billion - a figure they say is the government’s savings from money that should have gone promptly into individual Indian accounts.

The class-action suit covers about 500,000 Indians and their heirs.

The lead plaintiff, Elouise Cobell, said the government has “deep pockets because they have taxpayer money and they can drag it out forever.”

The Indians’ lawyers intend to argue that the money should be paid directly and does not require action by Congress. The Interior Department, which declined comment on the case, has argued in filings with the court that the judge lacks jurisdiction to award any money.

Congress could try again to settle the dispute.

Senate Indian Affairs Committee, but they were not able to get the two sides to agree on an amount.

“Congress could step in at any point and decide that enough is enough and just pass a bill to settle the lawsuit at a dollar amount that Congress determines is reasonable,” said Justin Kitsch, spokesman for Mr. Dorgan, the committee’s chairman. “Senators Dorgan and McCain were trying to do this before because it was clear that the federal government is liable, it is just not clear about the exact dollar amount.”

According to Mr. Dorgan’s office, Congress already has set aside $340 million for the department to account for the trust money - a process that U.S. District Judge James Robertson deemed inadequate this year.

An 1887 law allotted land to individual Indians and provided that the government would hold the land and any revenue from it in trust for them and for their survivors. Beginning in the 1970s, several reports criticized the government’s management.

Finally, in 1994, Congress demanded that the department fulfill an obligation to account for money received and distributed. A year later, when account statements still had not been reconciled, Ms. Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe from Native American Rights Fund and others in suing.

The case dragged on for several years, with occasional fireworks.

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