FARMINGTON — American Indians who want to claim their portion of the $3.4 billion Cobell vs. Salazar settlement must file the paperwork by Sept. 16.

That's 51 days after the court's final approval of the settlement last Wednesday.

The settlement, reached Dec. 7, 2009, in United States District Court in Washington, D.C., ended a 15-year legal battle that pitted Elouise Cobell, of Valier, Mont., against the federal government.

The case started when Cobell, who has an Individual Indian Money account, uncovered mismanagement of those accounts by the federal government while she was working as an accountant on the Montana Blackfeet reservation.

Trust accounts ranged in size from 35 cents to $1 million, originating from the Indian General Allotment Act of 1887.

Cobell filed her June 1996 lawsuit against the secretaries of the Department of the Interior and the Department of the Treasury. The lawsuit claimed the federal government mismanaged trust funds belonging to half a million individuals over the course of nearly 125 years.

The allotment act issued individual land rights to American Indians, but the Bureau of Indian Affairs managed the lands. Land owners were supposed to receive royalty checks for sub-surface resources, but the government made no reports of the money owed or paid, or of the interest earned.

The lawsuit sought monetary redress for hundreds of thousands of people who hold Individual Indian Money accounts. It also sought to force reform in the way the government treats American Indians.

When President Barack Obama on Dec. 8, 2010, signed legislation approving the settlement and authorizing $3.4 billion in funds, he settled the largest class-action lawsuit ever filed against the federal government.

"We were able to stand up for individual Indians and get them justice," Cobell said during a February interview when she visited Farmington. "This is the largest class-action lawsuit in history, and we're making the government pay attention to individual Indians."

But the settlement required approval from a federal judge. That came June 20, when U.S. Senior District Judge Thomas F. Hogan provided approval after a hearing on the merits of the case and on legal fees. The Washington, D.C., district court last week filed its final approval.

Under the settlement, $1.5 billion will go to at least 300,000 Indian account holders. An additional $1.9 billion will go to buy back and consolidate tribal land that has become subdivided and difficult to manage, and $60 million will go to a scholarship fund for American Indian students.

Hogan also awarded Cobell's lawyers $99 million. That's less than half what they sought, but nearly double the $50 million recommended by government lawyers.

Cobell will receive $2 million as her share of the settlement, and three other named plaintiffs will receive payments between $150,000 and $200,000.

Individual acount-holders who qualify will receive payments of at least $800, and many will get substantially more.

The largest pool of beneficiaries may be in the Eastern Agency of the Navajo Nation, but settlement comes too late for many people, said Ervin Chavez, president of Shi Shi Kéyah, a Navajo group that has fought for American Indian individuals' rights for nearly three decades.

He estimates between 40,000 and 50,000 Navajo citizens qualify to receive a payment.

The group filed a lawsuit similar to Cobell's in 1984, Chavez said, to protest against the federal government's methods of issuing payments to account holders.

"They were delayed payments that came sporadically, every six months, year or two years, to allotment owners," he said. "Even when they got checks, there was nothing attached to it. There were gas wells pumping, but no justification for what they were paid for."

The group, which eventually joined Cobell's case, wanted three things, Chavez said. It sought timely payments, an explanation of payments and establishment of a nearby office where individuals could interact face-to-face with government officials about their accounts.

"There were games played with the Navajo people," Chavez said of the government. "Elders have passed on — lots of people have passed on — waiting for this settlement. It tears your heart out to see elderlies waiting and waiting for any settlement."

Chavez, who said the settlement is "the best the federal government would agree to," is urging all account holders to file a claim. He also hopes the settlement means government reform.

"Is the government going to make honest changes? Will we see honest improvements to the system?" he said. "That's the real test. Or are we going to wake up to the same bureaucracy?"

Obama, after Hogan approved the settlement, issued a statement pledging a stronger relationship with American Indian tribes. There are 564 federally recognized tribes in the United States.

"After fifteen years of litigation, today's decision marks another important step forward in the relationship between the federal government and Indian Country," Obama said June 20.

"Resolving this dispute was a priority for my administration, and we will engage in government-to-government consultations with tribal nations regarding the land consolidation component of the settlement to ensure that this moves ahead at an appropriate pace and in an appropriate manner. And going forward, my administration will continue to strengthen our relationship with Indian Country."

Alysa Landry:

alandry@daily-times.com