By MATTHEW DALY
WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration proposed spending more than $3 billion to settle a lawsuit with American Indian tribes that claim they were swindled out of billions of dollars in royalties for oil, gas, grazing and other leases dating back more than a century.
Under an agreement that was announced Tuesday, the Interior Department would distribute $1.4 billion to more than 300,000 Indian tribe members to compensate for historical accounting claims and to resolve future claims. The government also would spend $2 billion to buy back and consolidate tribal lands broken up in previous generations. The program would allow individual tribe members to obtain cash payments for land interests divided among numerous family members and return the land to tribal control.
The settlement also would create a scholarship account of up to $60 million for tribal members to attend college or vocational schools.
If cleared by Congress and a federal judge, the settlement would be the largest Indian claim approved against the U.S. government -- exceeding the combined total of previous settlements of Indian claims.
Last year, a federal judge ruled that the Indian plaintiffs are entitled to $455 million, a fraction of the $47 billion or more the tribes have said they are owed for leases that have been overseen by the Interior Department since 1887.
President Barack Obama said settlement of the case, known as Cobell v. Salazar, was an important step to reconcile decades of acrimony between Indian tribes and the federal government.
"As a candidate, I heard from many in Indian Country that the Cobell suit remained a stain on the nation-to-nation relationship I value so much," Obama said in a written statement. "I pledged my commitment to resolving this issue."
The settlement would give every Indian tribe member with an Interior Department account an immediate check for $1,000, with additional payments to be determined later under a complicated formula that takes into account a variety of factors. Many tribe members also would receive payments for parcels of land that are held in some cases by up to 100 family members, in an effort to consolidate tribal land and make it more useful and easier to manage.