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U.S. offer in native lawsuit ‘a slap,’ plaintiff says

/ Source: The Associated Press

The lead plaintiff in a decade-old Indian trust lawsuit told Congress Thursday that an Interior Department attempt to settle the suit is a "slap in the face."

Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said his committee will continue to try to help resolve the conflict.

At issue is a lawsuit by American Indians against the government claiming that the Interior Department has mismanaged more than $100 billion in oil, gas, timber and other royalties from their lands held in trust dating back to 1887. Earlier this month, the government proposed paying $7 billion partly to settle the lawsuits.

The litigation, filed in 1996 by Blackfeet Indian Elouise Cobell of Browning, Mont., deals with individual Indians' lands. Several tribes have sued separately, claiming mismanagement of their lands.

"We, of course, will work to ensure that Interior's truly diabolical scheme fails," Cobell said in written testimony before the Indian Affairs Committee Thursday. "And that is why vigorous litigation will continue unless an alternative fair resolution can be reached."

'Dollar figure on the table'
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne defended the proposal at the hearing, saying money spent on the lawsuit could be better used elsewhere in Indian country.

"For the first time ever, the administration has put a dollar figure on the table," Kempthorne said.

Under the terms of the settlement offer, the government would pay $7 billion over 10 years, without interest. In exchange for the money, all tribal and individual mismanagement claims against the government would be dropped and the government would be relieved of future liability.

The proposal would also end, over a period of 10 years, most of the government's responsibilities to manage Indian trust lands and would consolidate ownership of Indian lands, which are now often held by many people.

Roughly half of the $7 billion would go toward settling individual and tribal claims, with the remainder covering other parts of the proposal.

Cobell said the government is trying to do too much at once and objected to the inclusion of the individual and tribal suits in the same settlement.

Dorgan appeared to agree, asking Kempthorne whether the administration would consider a settlement just involving the individual claims.

"It would be our hope and our intent" to find a solution for all of the claims together, Kempthorne said.

Mediator estimates $7-9 billion
John Bickerman, a mediator in the case, testified that the amount owed to the Indians in the Cobell lawsuit alone is probably an estimated $7 billion to $9 billion.

He urged Congress to find a solution.

"Too much time and too many resources have already been wasted and more will be wasted attempting to make a broken system work if Congress fails to act," he said.

Bill Mercer, acting associate attorney general, said the government is prepared to listen to Congress.

"If Congress can arrive at an appropriate settlement we would give that approach our strong support," he testified.