WASHINGTON – It has been 12 years since a group of American Indians sued the government, saying Washington had cheated them out of profits from land royalties since 1887.
On Monday, a federal judge plans to begin hearings to determine how much he thinks the government should pay the Native Americans. Yet most of those involved in the case expect an appeal, further extending the dispute. On top of that, it is not clear how any award would be paid: Congress may have to set the money aside, a tough sell in tight time.
All the while, the plaintiffs grow older, nearing the end of their lives, uncertain if even a penny will come their way.
The Indians' 1996 suit claims they were swindled out of more than $100 billion in oil, gas, grazing, timber and other royalties overseen by the Interior Department since 1887. The Indians rejected a government offer of less than $7 billion last year. Now, they say they are owed $58 billion -- a figure they say is the government's savings from money that should gone promptly into individual Indian accounts.
The class-action suit covers about 500,000 Indians and their heirs.
The lead plaintiff, Elouise Cobell, said the government has "deep pockets because they have taxpayer money and they can drag it out forever."
The Indians' lawyers intend to argue that the money should be paid directly and does not require action by Congress. The Interior Department, which declined comment on the case, has argued in filings with the court that the judge lacks jurisdiction to award any money.
Congress could try again to settle the dispute.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Arizona's John McCain, the likely Republican presidential nominee, tried to do that three years ago when McCain led the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, but they were not able to get the two sides to agree on an amount.