Page last updated at 23:09 GMT, Tuesday, 8 December 2009

US to pay $3.4bn to settle Native Americans land case

Members of the Lumbee Tribe in Washington DC (file image)
The claimants said funds from their land had been mismanaged

The US government has agreed to pay $3.4bn (£2.1bn) to settle a long-running case over Native American land.

The Cobell case, filed in 1996, alleged the government had mismanaged billions of dollars in income from natural resources on Native American land.

Under the deal the interior department will share $1.4bn (£859m) among 300,000 tribe members as compensation and set up a $2bn fund to buy land from them.

President Barack Obama said it was "an important step towards reconciliation".

"I heard from many in Indian Country that the Cobell Suit remained a stain on the nation-to-nation relationship I value so much," Mr Obama told Congress.

He said he had pledged as a presidential candidate to resolve the issue and was proud the step had finally been made.

The secretary of the interior department also said it would aid reconciliation.

"This is an historic, positive development for Indian country," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement released by the department.

Contentious case

The dispute dates back to the 1887 Dawes Act, which seized Indian land - much of it rich in natural resources - and gave it to white-owned companies to exploit.

Elouise Cobell in New York (8 December 2009)
Ms Cobell said many Natives Americans were owed far more

Under the Act, the land was divided into plots and each Indian family was assigned a parcel of land, a concept alien to their culture in which all land belonged to the tribe.

The idea was for them to be "compensated" for the use of their land; however disputes arose almost immediately, perpetuated as ever smaller parcels of land were inherited by new generations.

Attorney General Eric Holder said the parties had tried to reach an agreement "many, many times".

"But today we turn the page. This settlement is fair to the plaintiffs, responsible for the US, and provides a path forward for the future," he said.

Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfoot tribe and who filed the complaint in 1996, welcomed the settlement, saying the administration had listened to Native American concerns.

Today is a monumental day for all of the people in Indian Country that have waited so long for justice
Elouise Cobell

But she said there was "no doubt" the final amount was "significantly" less than what those affected actually deserved.

The plaintiffs had claimed they were owed $47bn.

Ms Cobell said: "Today is a monumental day for all of the people in Indian Country that have waited so long for justice.

"Did we get all the money that was due us? Probably not... but there too many individual Indian beneficiaries that are dying every single day without their money."

On its website the department for the interior said that the litigation had included hundreds of motions, dozens of rulings and appeals, and several trials.

The agreement must be approved both by Congress and a federal judge.

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