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Appeal dismissal brings tribes closer to multibillion-dollar federal settlement

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A historic settlement

The $3.4 billion settlement of the Cobell class-action suit, which claimed that the government mismanaged funds it was supposed to hold in trust for Native Americans, is the largest in U.S. history. Among the terms of the settlement:

• The agreement pays out $1.5 billion directly to hundreds of thousands of Native Americans who claim the government mismanaged properties that were supposed to be held in trust.
• Recipients are divided between two classes: Those in the Trust Administration Class will get $1,000 each and those in the Historical Accounting Class will get $800 each.
• Lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell was additionally awarded $2 million and the three other main plaintiffs were awarded between $150,000 and $200,000.
• The settlement includes another $1.9 billion that the government will use to purchase "fractionated" land allotments from Native Americans.
• The class-action suit includes as many as a half-million Native Americans, including tens of thousands in Arizona.

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Lawyers weigh appeal after court upholds $3.4 billion Native American settlement

Judge removes hurdle to challenge of $3.4 billion Indian lands settlement

WASHINGTON — The last legal challenge to a $3.4 billion government settlement with Native Americans was withdrawn last week, clearing the way for payments to as many as 500,000 tribal members, including about 30,000 Arizonans.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