Under the settlement approved on Monday, $1.5bn will go to at least 300,000 Indian account holders [Al Jazeera]
A US federal judge has approved a $3.4bn settlement over "mismanaged" Native American royalties, in a case that represents the largest settlement ever approved against the US government.
Elouise Cobell of Browning, Montana, claimed in the 15-year-old suit that for more than a century, US officials systematically stole or squandered billions in royalties intended for Native Americans in exchange for oil, gas, grazing and other leases.
Thomas Hogan, the US district judge, approved the settlement on Monday after a daylong hearing, saying the legitimacy of Cobell's claims could not be questioned.
"The government mismanaged these resources on a staggering scale," Hogan said.
The settlement does not make up for the losses native American tribes suffered for more than a century, Hogan added, but "at least it provides some certainty" to hundreds of thousands of individuals who will now receive payments of least $1,000 each from the government. Many will receive substantially more money.
Cobell, a member of the Blackfoot Tribe, will receive $2 million, and three other named plaintiffs will receive payments ranging from $150,000 to $200,000 each.
Battles and appeals
The government and lawyers representing Cobell settled the lawsuit in December 2009 after years of court battles and appeals. Congress approved the settlement at the end of last year, and Barack Obama, the US president, signed it into law.
But the case still needed Hogan's approval, which he provided late Monday after a hearing on the merits of the case and legal fees to be assessed.
In a statement, Obama said the decision "marks another important step forward in the relationship between the federal government and Indian Country".
Resolving the dispute was a priority for his administration, Obama said.
He promised to engage in "government-to-government consultations with tribal nations" regarding the land consolidation aspect of the settlement to ensure that it moves quickly and fairly.
Under the settlement approved Monday, $1.5bn will go to at least 300,000 Native American account holders.
Another $1.9bn will be used to buy back and consolidate tribal land that has become subdivided and difficult to manage over the years. An additional $60 million will go to a scholarship fund for Native American students.