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Cobell | Opinion
Editorial: Government fails to live up to promises to Indian people


"Native Americans have had an even tougher time securing remuneration for past injustices. Native American landowners have been cheated out of billions of dollars in oil and gas royalties by the government since the late 19th century. Late last year they entered into a $3.4 billion settlement agreement with the administration after an unusually contentious 14-year court battle. The settlement includes $1.4 billion for payments to individuals, a $60 million scholarship fund for Native American children and roughly $2 billion for the government to buy plots that will be turned over to the pertinent Indian tribe. This land consolidation is important because much of Indian country has been subdivided into tiny, individually owned plots that complicate the calculation of royalties and inheritance rights. But Native Americans have yet to see a penny because of Congress's intransigence. And their hopes of achieving a payout are likely to evaporate unless Congress comes through before a court-imposed Oct. 15 deadline.

Some senators have cited the hefty legal fees -- between $50 million and $99 million -- due the lawyers for the Native Americans as a reason to reject the settlement. We share some of their discomfort, especially because the average Native American will pocket less than $2,000. But the settlement should not be scuttled because of this. The lawyers have put in two decades of work without being paid and are slated to receive a contingency fee of only 3 percent -- far less than what is usually awarded. The reality is that these types of cases would probably fall by the wayside if advocates did not have a reasonable shot at a handsome payout. Even if the lawyers agreed to accept less, the difference to the 300,000 Native Americans in line for a payment would be minuscule.

African Americans and Native Americans have been the most persecuted and exploited groups in this nation's history, and the settlements in question represent modest, but achievable, efforts to address discrete harms. The White House and Congress should work diligently to ensure that these most recent promises become reality."

Get the Story:
Editorial: Unfulfilled promises to black farmers and Native Americans (The Washington Post 9/3)

Cobell Settlement Documents:
Agreement | Press Release | Q&A | Audio

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