HELENA — Hundreds of thousands of Native Americans have started receiving the final cash payments this week from one of the largest government settlements in U.S. history, about three years after the deal was approved.
Checks ranging from $869 to $10 million were sent beginning Monday to more than 493,000 people by the administrators of the $3.4 billion settlement from a class-action lawsuit filed by Elouise Cobell of Browning, Montana.
Some $941 million is being distributed in this second round of payments, plaintiffs’ attorney David Smith said Thursday.
Cobell sued after finding the government squandered billions of dollars in royalties for land it held in trust for individual Indians that was leased for development, exploration or agriculture. The mismanagement stretched back to the 1880s, the lawsuit found.
She died of cancer in 2011, after more than 15 years of doggedly pursuing the lawsuit, rallying Native Americans around the cause and lobbying members of Congress for its approval.
Cobell’s successor at the nonprofit she created, the Native American Community Development Corp., said she regrets that Cobell is not around to see the checks arrive.
“That’s the sad part. You work all those years and to not to see it to fruition is bittersweet,” NACDC executive director Angie Main said Thursday.
Cobell was present when a federal judge approved the settlement just months before her death. But it took years to work through the appeals and then sort through incomplete and erroneous information provided by the government to identify all the beneficiaries.
Some 22,000 people listed in the data provided had died, while 1,000 more listed as dead were still alive, Smith said.
The government data also listed the wrong or no address for three out of four people, he said.
The payments are the second of two distributions in the settlement. The first distributions of $1,000 apiece went to more than 339,000 people. This second, final round of distributions is based on a formula looking at 10 years of the highest earnings on those individual landowners’ accounts.
The settlement also includes a $1.9 billion land buy-back program now underway in which willing landowners sell the government their land allotments to be consolidated and turned over to the tribes.
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