Checkpoint: Legislation Legacy

In 1996, five Native Americans filed a lawsuit against the United States Department of the Interior and the United States Department of the Treasury. This case was originally known as Cobell v Babbitt, then was renamed Cobell v Norton and is now known as Cobell v Kempthorne since this lawsuit has lasted through the terms of three Secretaries of the Interior. Currently this lawsuit is a class action suit on behalf of approximately 500,000 Native Americans and their heirs.

The purpose of the lawsuit is to force the government to account for money held in trust for the Native Americans and to bring about a permanent reform of the trust system.

The basic facts of this lawsuit go back to 1887. Under the "General Allotment Act of 1887" (also known as the "Dawes Act"), tribal lands were divided into parcels of between 80 and 160 acres of land. Thousands of individual Native Americans were allocated beneficial ownership of these parcels of land. Other lands were deemed unneeded by the Native Americans and turned over to the government to allocate to non-Indians. As trustee for the Native Americans, the U.S. Government took legal title to their parcels, established an Individual Indian Trust and assumed full responsibility for management of the trust lands. That included the duty to collect and disburse to the Native Americans any revenues generated by mining, oil and gas extraction, timber operations, grazing and similar activities. The plaintiffs in the current lawsuit believe that the Department of Interior has no accurate records for hundreds of thousands of

Native American beneficiaries nor of billions of dollars owed the approximately 500,000 beneficiaries covered by the lawsuit.

In 1996, U.S. District Judge Royce Lambert ruled that the Secretaries of Interior and Treasury had breached their trust obligation to the Native Americans and ordered the Interior Department to provide a historical accounting of all trust funds. In 2006, Judge Lambert was removed from the case. In December 2006, the case was assigned to Judge XXXXX XXXXXXX on for all further proceedings. As of now, the second trial phase to account for the money held in trust hasn't yet been scheduled.