TOPPENISH, Wash.- American Indians must urge Congress to quickly sign off on a $3.4 billion settlement of a lawsuit against the federal government for swindling them out of royalties for oil, gas, grazing and other leases, the lead plaintiff said Tuesday.
"We've won some really huge victory. Will it fix anything? No, but it's a stepping stone," Elouise Cobell of Browning, Mont., said during a meeting on the settlement at Heritage University on the Yakama Indian Reservation. "We have made a tremendous impact on this government and the way our trust has been managed in the past."
The meeting was one of several planned across the Northwest this week by Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, and her le-gal team. The deadline for Congress to approve the settlement was extended to April 16, and Cobell maintains further delays could terminate the deal.
The Interior Department manages about 56 million acres of land and leases it for mining, grazing and oil and gas production. Money collected from those leases is distributed to more than 384,000 individual Indian accounts and about 2,700 tribal accounts.
The June 1996 lawsuit alleged the government had breached its responsibility to manage assets belonging to American Indians and refused to fix a flawed accounting system that led to the loss of billions of dollars.
Under the settlement agreement, the Interior Department would distribute $1.4 billion to more than 300,000 Indian tribe members to compensate them for historical accounting claims, and to resolve future claims. Most lawsuit participants would receive at least $1,500, and many would receive considerably more.
The government also would spend $2 billion to buy back and consolidate tribal land broken up in previous generations. The pro-gram would allow individual tribal members to obtain cash payments for land interests divided among numerous family members and return the land to tribal control.
If cleared by Congress and a federal judge, the settlement would be the largest Indian claim ever approved against the U.S. gov-ernment - exceeding the combined total of all previous settlements of Indian claims.
More than 100 people attended Tuesday's meeting. Some raised concerns that the settlement doesn't offer a long-term solution.
"This has been a problem for years and years. We shouldn't settle for pennies," said Lia Whitefoot, 56, an enrolled Yakama from Tacoma whose mother died six years ago without receiving payments due from trust lands.
"There's a sickness, and we're still ill from it. We're still going to be suffering from the same things. I may not get one penny out of the settlement, and I still want to see this problem get fixed," she said. "And I'm not satisfied."
Bill Dorris, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said participants may choose to opt out of the agreement, but he urged tribal members to be well-informed of their options going forward.
"If this bill dies now, we will never get back to something this good. I believe that in my heart. We have fought for 14 years. We have won many battles in court, only to have them reversed," he said. "Fifteen-hundred-dollars may not seem like a lot, but I have to tell you, it's $1,500 more than anyone else has been able to get."
Yakama tribal member Fidelia Andy, 64, said too many Indians are still waiting for their trust claims to be recognized by the fed-eral government and won't even qualify for a part of the settlement.
"We're backed up on so many probates. There are people who should have been in the system years ago, but the government has not been paying attention for 30 years - longer than that, probably 40 years," Andy said. "It's a process that's continued to pile up and it's Indian-country wide."
Cobell stressed that the settlement will not solve the overall problem, including issues of Indians receiving fair-market value for land that may be sold and probates that still need to be settled.
"It's going to be up to us to continue to fight on," she said. "This won't be over with this settlement."
Additional meetings are scheduled Wednesday in Portland and Thursday in Seattle.