FAIRBANKS — Several thousand Alaska Natives are among the Native Americans who will receive payment under a $3.4 billion settlement with the federal government that became final on Saturday, resolving claims about the government’s mismanagement of trusts and lands.
The lawsuit, known as the Cobell case, has been in the legal system for more than 15 years and involves claims that many Native Americans had been cheated out of royalties since 1887 on things such as oil, gas, grazing and timber.
However, payments to most Alaska Natives would not be based on an accounting of such royalties. Rather, most payments in Alaska would be “basic allocations” of $500 each in exchange for dropping any potential claims against the federal government, according to officials who described the settlement to Congress in 2009.
A Department of the Interior official testified then that 5,365 Alaska Natives were included in the case.
Attorneys representing the plaintiffs estimated the number could be 12,000 or more. Many Alaska Natives obtained land individually under the 1906 Native Allotment Act, but decisions about the land remained subject to Interior Department approval. The act gave each adult Native head-of-household the right to apply for up to 160 acres of “non-mineral land” until 1971, when Congress ended the program with passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
Congress approved the Cobell settlement in December 2010. A news release Monday from the Department of Interior, which oversees management of Native American trusts, said the settlement became final following action by the Supreme Court and expiration of the appeal period.
“With the settlement now final, we can put years of discord behind us and start a new chapter in our nation-to-nation relationship,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in the news release.
“Today marks another historic step forward in President Obama’s agenda of reconciliation and empowerment for Indian Country and begins a new era of trust administration.”
Salazar detailed the steps that the Interior Department will take to implement the settlement.
The news release described the major components of the settlement as follows:
• The settlement includes a $1.5 billion fund to be distributed to class members for accounting and potential trust fund and asset mismanagement claims. The court-approved claims administrator will begin disbursement of the $1.5 billion to nearly 500,000 members of the class-action lawsuit, which would include Alaska Natives who were willing to forgo any land administration claims.
• The settlement also includes a $1.9 billion fund for a land consolidation program that allows for the voluntary sale of individual land interests that have “fractionated,” or split among owners, over successive generations. As much as $60 million of the $1.9 billion fund may be set aside to provide scholarships for American Indians and Alaska Natives to attend college or vocational school. Individual owners will be paid fair market value with the understanding that the acquired interests will remain in trust and be consolidated for beneficial use by tribal communities. Interested sellers may convey their fractional interests on a voluntary basis. Currently, there are more than 2.9 million fractional interests owned by approximately 260,000 individuals.
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