Salazar meets with tribal leaders to discuss land trust lawsuit settlement

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was headed to Billings, Mont., on Friday to open discussions with tribal leaders from the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain regions on land consolidation details in a recently finalized $3.4 billion settlement with the government.

The resolution of Cobell v. Salazar won final approval from a federal judge last month after 15 years in court. The deal paves the way for Interior to start making payments to as many as half a million American Indians who had individual accounts or an interest in trust or restricted land that were managed -- or mismanaged -- by Interior.

As part of the Cobell settlement, Interior is setting up a $1.9 billion fund for voluntary buybacks and consolidation of tribal land involved in trust fund controversies.

"These discussions will provide valuable input in developing and implementing a strategy to benefit tribal communities and help free up trust lands," Salazar said in a statement. "The process is fundamental to respecting the government-to-government relationship with the tribes."

Interior announced last week it is creating a Secretarial Commission on Indian Trust Administration and Reform to evaluate the department's trust management and make recommendations on how to improve the current trust system.

Over the next several weeks the department will take nominations for the commission, which will have five members with expertise in the areas of financial, trust and asset management, as well as experience with Indian country accounts.

"We must carry out our trust responsibilities in a proactive and transparent manner, and the establishment of this commission is an important step in the process," David J.Hayes, deputy secretary at Interior, said in a press release.

Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, filed the class action lawsuit in 1996, citing the government's historical mismanagement of trust funds belonging to more than 500,000 Native Americans. Cobell said the government failed to provide a historical account for Individual Indian Money accounts, which the government held in trust in exchange for leasing tribal land, but either mismanaged the funds, or in some cases failed to deposit funds at all.

The case was originally settled in December 2009. Congress took a year to approve the settlement, which then needed a final nod from a federal judge.

Senior District Judge Thomas Hogan approved the $3.4 billion settlement on June 20. The agreement also provides $1.5 billion dollars for the tribe members affected and establishes an Indian Education Scholarship Fund of up to $60 million.

Currently, a court-appointed third party is sending notifications to the affected tribal members, who are scattered throughout the country in Montana, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona. That administrator also established a website to provide information to affected tribe members and allow them to file claims.

The meeting in Billings, Mont., is the first of six scheduled regional consultations. The next five will occur in Minneapolis, Seattle, Phoenix, Oklahoma City and Albuquerque, N.M.

"An unfortunate chapter in the department's history will be put behind us as we turn the page to jointly compose a new narrative -- a chapter marked by a renewed commitment to Indian nations, a story that moves forward by working together," Hayes said in an announcement.

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