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Blackfeet Reservation Development Fund

Starting in 1998, Lannan Foundation awarded both grants and program related investments (recoverable loans) in support of the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit referred to as the Individual Indian Monies Trust Correction and Recovery Lawsuit (Cobell vs. Salazar). Spearheaded by lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell (Blackfeet, 1945–2011), the lawsuit claimed that the US Department of the Interior had for decades grossly mismanaged trust funds it was managing on behalf of individual Indians.

In 2010 President Barack Obama signed legislation approving a $3.4 billion settlement that was reached between the attorneys for both the plaintiffs and the defendants. Of that amount, $1.5 billion was  placed in a common fund to compensate individual Indians who had trust accounts with the Department of the Interior. The remaining funds were used to consolidate fractionated lands to be put in trust for specific tribes.

Background: Since the late nineteenth century the US government has been in charge of a trust fund known as the Individual Indian Monies Trust accounts. The trust was established when the U.S. Congress broke up and parceled out aboriginal land that was historically used and occupied by a number of American Indian tribes.

Excess lands allotted to individuals from those tribes were put in trust and managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), an agency of the Department of the Interior. Trust beneficiaries derive income from royalties on their land, which the BIA leases out for activities such as logging, oil and gas exploration, and grazing. But for more than 100 years these trust fund monies have been grossly mismanaged.

As early as 1980 government officials knew the trust was being mismanaged, but avoided fixing the problem, perceiving the trust fund beneficiaries had little money or clout to force a cleanup of the system.

In 1996 this changed when the largest class action lawsuit ever brought by American Indians against the federal government compelled Interior officials to address the mismanagement of trust fund monies. Initially called Cobell vs. Babbitt, the case came about largely due to the persistence of one individual account holder by the name of Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana.   

“First they took our blood, then they took our land, now they’ve got our money. And, you know, they’re not going to get away with it this time… When they have to manage other people’s money according to standards, why aren’t they managing our money to standards? Is it because you manage brown people’s money differently?”

- Elouise Cobell in an interview with Mike Wallace of CBS’s 60 Minutes in 2000.

With her own money, and funds committed by private foundations, Cobell, her attorney, and attorneys from the Native American Rights Fund began the process of challenging the government in a court of law to hold it accountable for breaching its trust duties. Cobell and four other plaintiffs named in the complaint filed suit on behalf of themselves and as many as 500,000 individuals.

Resolution: After 14 years of litigation, the settlement reached under the Obama administration enabled a measure of justice for thousands of individual Indian account holders, who began receiving settlement payments starting in 2012.