Appeals court considers if American Indians entitled to millions or billions in trust suit

Gov’t says it owes nothing in Indian trust suit

WASHINGTON — The government told a federal appeals court Monday it owes nothing to 500,000 American Indians and their heirs who claim they were cheated out of billions of dollars in land royalties.

The long-running suit, first filed 13 years ago, is before the U.S. Court of Appeals after both sides appealed a lower court’s decision last year that the Indian plaintiffs are entitled to $455 million — far less than the $47 billion or higher they say they are owed.

The suit claims the Indians were swindled out of royalties overseen by the Interior Department since 1887 for things like oil, gas, grazing and timber.

Indian plaintiffs, led by Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe from Montana, have argued that the government has improperly accounted for the money and should pay it back with some form of interest.

The government appeal contends the court does not have the jurisdiction to award the money at all, pointing to a district court decision last year that the task of accounting for the trust money was ultimately impossible. They have also pointed to the lower court’s ruling that Congress has not given the Interior Department enough money to do a full accounting.

In 1994, Congress demanded that the Interior Department fulfill an obligation to account for money received and distributed. Two years later, when account statements still had not been reconciled, Cobell joined with others in suing.

Because many of the records have been lost, it has since been up to the court to decide how to best estimate how much individual Indians should be paid, or how the money should be accounted for. Many of them are nearing the end of their lives.

At issue in the trial’s most recent phase was how much of the royalty money was withheld from the Indian plaintiffs over the years, and whether it was held in the U.S. Treasury at a benefit to the government. U.S. District Judge James Robertson said last year that plaintiffs did not successfully argue that it was.

Robertson originally intended to begin a new phase of the trial that would determine how and to whom the government should award the money. But he said at an August status hearing that he would allow appeals now so the process would not be delayed further.

The class-action suit deals with individual Indians’ lands and covers about 500,000 Indians and their heirs. Several tribes have sued separately, claiming mismanagement of their lands.

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