Most area residents have probably seen the recent TV commercials or newspaper advertisements about a $3.4 billion Indian trust settlement.
Documents detailing the Cobell vs. Salazar settlement are available online, but officials with the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma say some tribal citizens may not understand some of the legal terms used to describe the matter, or may not realize they qualify.
On Dec. 21, 2010, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted preliminary approval to this settlement. Individual Native Americans across the country – including members of most federally recognized tribes west of the Mississippi River – may be part of the settlement.
“What Elouise Cobell [the lead plaintiff in the class action lawsuit] was doing was trying to make the federal government accountable for them holding land in trust for these tribal members,” said Sammy Still, UKB tribal media director. “What the lawsuit was for was mismanagement of tribal trust funds and assets.”
The lawsuit claims the federal government violated its trust duties by not providing a proper historical accounting relating to Individual Indian Money accounts and other trust assets. The feds are also accused of violating trust responsibilities for management of land, oil, natural gas, mineral, timber, grazing and other resources.
Still and other members of the UKB, along with representatives of other area tribes, attended a meeting in Muskogee Wednesday, when representatives of Cobell explained portions of the settlement. The federal government denies the claims, and says it has no legal responsibility and owes nothing to class members, according to www.indiantrust.com.
Two classes may be eligible for money
Two groups in the settlement may be eligible for payment.
“They said $1.5 billion of the funds will go directly to the IIM, which is Individual Indian Money account. [The recipient] should have an open IIM account,” said Still. “This is payment from the government for the use of their lands that they’re holding in trust. Those individuals will receive, through this settlement, $1,000, across the board. This is for all account holders.”
Those qualifying for the first class of the settlement are referred to as Historical Accounting Class Members. They should have had an open IIM account anytime between Oct. 25, 1994 and Sept. 30, 2009, with the account having at least one cash transaction that wasn’t later reversed. This includes estates of account holders who died as of Sept. 30, 2009, if the IIM account was still open on that date.
The estate of an IIM account holder who had died as of Sept. 30, 2009, is included in the first class if the IIM account or its related probate account was open as of that date, while heirs of any class member who died after Sept. 30, 2009, but before distribution of any settlement funds, will receive that class member’s settlement payments through probate.
Still said some who don’t qualify for the first settlement payment may qualify for the second class, which is labeled as the Trust Administration Class. All who qualify for the first class will also receive the second payment.
According to a notice authorized by a federal court, qualifiers in the Trust Administration class could receive anywhere from $800 to $125,000, depending on the sum of his or her account’s 10 highest years of revenue. For instance, if the revenue over those 10 highest years ranged from zero to $5,000, he or she could receive $800-$1,250.
“If they don’t have an IIM open account, these people that just own land will not receive the $1,000. The people who just own the land will receive the second check, which they said will be at least $800,” said Still.
Trust Land Consolidation Fund explained
Out of the $3.4 billion settlement, $1.9 billion is for a Trust Land Consolidation Fund to purchase “fractionated” individual Indian lands.
Those who own a small parcel of land with “many other people” – often, hundreds of others – may be asked by the federal government to sell it. Some who share land with multiple owners may receive small payments, perhaps as little as 6 cents or a dollar, said Still.
Fair market value will be offered, and if the land is sold, it will be returned to tribal control and funds will be placed into the Indian Education Scholarship Fund. Land sales are voluntary.
The Department of the Interior has not yet set procedures for selling trust land. For fractionated interests, five years after the settlement is granted final approval, class members who have not been located through “diligent efforts” by the Department of Interior will be assumed to have consented to the transfer of their interests and their Indian Land Consolidation Funds will be deposited into an IIM account.
Filing claims is free for tribal citizens
Applications to be part of this class action settlement are due by April 20. Anyone who wants to keep his or her right to sue the federal government about the claims in the settlement must also opt out of the Trust Administration class by April 20, but members who qualify in the Historical Account class, by law, cannot be excluded.
“IIM account holders, they received a letter, and in that was a form stating this information,” said Still. “If they received that through the mail to their home address, they don’t have to do anything if they agree to the settlement. They will automatically get that $1,000 payment, and the [other] payment later on. If they didn’t get that letter, and own Indian trust land, in order to get that money, you’d have to fill out that application.”
On June 20, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia will hold a hearing to consider whether to approve the settlement.
“If, after 60 days, there’s no successful appeal to this settlement, they will start processing the checks and distributing them,” said Still “Hopefully, they’ll start receiving the $1,000 checks by October. The second check, hopefully by the end of the year. If not, sometime at the first of spring of 2012.”
Still said the settlement could benefit a number of UKB tribal citizens.
“What the tribe has been doing – their involvement in this – is only to assist them in filling out the application forms, helping them send any proper documentation they may need for their land descriptions and all of this,” said Still.
UKB Realty Director Francine Rozell has been fielding calls from tribal citizens looking to check their status relating to the settlement.
“I’ve probably talked to a dozen or more on the phone,” said Rozell.
Her first recommendation is for the tribal citizen to call (800) 961-6109 or visit www.IndianTrust.com. Information can be requested at no charge. Rozell said it’s important for tribal citizens to check on this settlement, and whether they qualify, because the process is completely free to them.
“If they have the documents, and they have a problem filling them out, or they don’t have family members who can help them fill it out, then they can call me or bring it in, and I would be glad to assist them,” said Rozell. “It doesn’t cost anything for them to fill that out.”
Check it out
To see detailed information, including requirements, deadlines and frequently asked questions on this Indian trust settlement, log on to www.indiantrust.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call toll-free (800) 961-6109. When filing a claim, UKB tribal citizens can, if needed, call (918) 458-4714 for assistance.