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Appeal dismissal brings tribes closer to multibillion-dollar federal settlement

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WASHINGTON — The last legal challenge to a $3.4 billion government settlement with Native Americans was withdrawn last week, clearing the way for payments to as many as 500,000 tribal members, including about 30,000 Arizonans.

Carol Eve Good Bear, Charles Colombe and Mary Aurelia Johns asked the U.S. Supreme Court to disregard their appeal of the so-called Cobell settlement, which resolved a 1996 class-action suit by Native Americans who claimed the federal government had mismanaged trust land funds for decades.

Federal officials could not say Tuesday how soon payments under the settlement might start to go out – the Interior Department referred calls to the Justice Department, which referred calls back to Interior.

At stake are payments to as many as a half-million tribal members, including about 30,000 people from seven Arizona different tribes – the Tohono O’odham, Navajo, Salt River Pima-Maricopa, San Carlos Apache, Hopi, Gila River and Colorado River tribes.

The total $3.4 billion dollar settlement would be divided into three parts. Of the total, about $1.5 billion would go directly to affected Native Americans in the form of Individual Indian Money accounts. The federal government uses such accounts to deposit money from use or sales of trust assets, such as timber harvesting or grazing leases.

Another $1.9 billion would be used to buy back and consolidate “fractionated” land, tribal lands that have been divided repeatedly between heirs over generations. Up to $60 million would go to fund scholarships and vocational training programs for American Indian and Alaska Natives.

Attorneys in the class-action suit could receive about $99 million in fees, which would come out of settlement funds, according to an informational site on the settlement.

The tribes and the federal government reached settlement of the suit in late 2009, and Congress and the president approved signed off on the deal in 2010. But legal challenges have tied up the money since then and many people have died without receiving a check – including lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet tribe of Montana who died of cancer in October 2011.

“It’s a shame that so many people had to wait before being paid,” said Dennis Gingold, an attorney for Cobell plaintiffs.

Gingold called the appeals “meritless.” David C. Harrison, an attorney for Good Bear and the others, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

The Supreme Court had declined to hear a separate Cobell challenge in October.

John R. Lewis, executive director of the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona Inc., said the trust settlement is about more than just money.

“I think it’s important to recognize that there has been an injustice done to tribes and the payments are an acknowledgement of that,” Lewis said.