American Indian leaders have outlined a legislative plan that could settle a lawsuit over government mismanagement of Indian lands for $27.5 billion.
The price tag is just one part of the complicated 50-point plan that was created at the request of U.S. lawmakers looking for proposals to settle the divisive, nine-year-old class-action lawsuit. More than 300,000 Indians accuse the Department of the Interior of losing royalties collected from leasing their land for oil and gas drilling, grazing or logging.
Indian leaders announced the plan on Monday. The $27.5 billion figure, they say, was a far lower figure than the $176 billion their accountants calculated would be owed in royalties and interest if no allotment holder had ever been paid, the Washington Post reported. Some money has, in fact, been paid over the years.
The lead plaintiff in the case, Elouise Cobell of the Blackfeet Nation of Montana, told reporters that the government is fighting some of the poorest people in the country over money it owes them while at the same time cutting funding for Indian programs. The Indian Health Service, for example, is so underfunded that it will not allow patients to see specialists unless they have a life-threatening condition, Cobell told the Post. "They're pulling young people's teeth out because it's cheaper to do that than fill cavities."
Dan DuBray, a spokesman for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said that the $27.5 billion the plaintiffs are asking for "is greater than the combined budgets of the departments of the Interior and Commerce and the Environmental Protection Agency." He added that the figure is based on “mythical numbers.”
U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, who is hearing the lawsuit, has said that the Interior Department "sets the gold standard for mismanagement by the federal government."
According to the Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune, the Indian leaders called for the legislation to specify that the settlement money would not be deducted from funds normally given to other federal Indian programs. The federal court hearing the lawsuit would decide how to distribute the funds. The group also asked that the legislation include standards for managing the trust fund accounts in the future.
Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said he expects lawmakers to introduce legislation by the end of June.
"Each time an elder passes away, justice was not served for that grandmother, for that grandfather, for that aunt and uncle," Hall said.