March 16, 2010
"Congress Shortchanges the Indians"
Last December, after 13 years of lawsuits and painful negotiations, the federal government and representatives of hundreds of thousands of American Indians finally reached a settlement of claims that reached back to the 19th century. Only one more hurdle stood between the Indians and the $3.4 billion that the government agreed to pay them: Congress, which was required to sign off on the agreement.
It seemed like a formality, but Congress has yet to do so, even though a deadline looms on April 16. This is disgraceful, especially since there seems to be no serious substantive opposition to the deal. The main enemy is sloth. True, the agreement can be extended. But the Indians have waited long enough. The money is there. It’s time to turn the page.
The settlement arose out of a lawsuit charging that Washington had shortchanged accounts it had held in trust since an 1887 law placed Indian lands in the hands of the federal government. The government leased the lands for mining, grazing and other purposes and returned the proceeds to the trusts.
Over time, records were lost, mishandled or destroyed, and the trusts were divided into tinier and tinier pieces as they were passed down to descendants. The $3.4 billion settlement negotiated by the Interior Department is less than the trust’s estimated value.
But Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff, has noted that this is the best solution likely and at least partial atonement for years of carelessness. Many claimants are growing older, and further delays will mean more deaths among the people who never fully benefited from the trusts and who deserve to benefit from the settlement.