What would you do if someone borrowed something from you but waited so long to return it, they forgot what you lent them in the first place?
That is the predicament facing thousands of American Indians whose ancestors allowed the U.S. government to rent millions of acres of their tribal land. Over many decades, the government lost track of who owns what land and has not consistently paid the Native American families and tribal councils what they’re due.
In the early 1800s, the national government took over portions of American Indian tribal lands and rented them to ranchers, miners and loggers who wanted to use the land’s resources. Congress passed the Dawes Act of 1887 to set up a “trust” or formal system of paying Native Americans money the government earned from the use of their land. The Dawes Act divided the land among individual Indian families who were then paid for the share assigned to them. The government also bought several million acres but Indian families were paid very little as traditional Indian culture does not view land as something that can be bought or sold.
About 47 million acres of tribal land is now held in government trust, mostly in the Dakotas, Montana, New Mexico and Arizona. Each year, most Indian families are paid for the land that was allotted to them. However, as family members die and others marry, it becomes harder for the government to account for who owns what land.
But Eloise Cobell of the Blackfeet Indians in Montana says “enough is enough.” She is the lead plaintiff in a massive class action lawsuit filed in 1996 on behalf of over 300,000 accounts belonging to individual Native Americans. Ms. Cobell claims that the government owes these account holders at least $10 billion.The U.S. District judge responsible for Ms. Cobell’s lawsuit has already decided the government has not kept adequate records and did not pay the right amount of money to Indian families as compensation. The judge has held former high-ranking officials in contempt of court for not providing needed documentation and current officials face potential contempt charges as well. Now, the court will look at possible ways to fix the system and determine what damages might be awarded.