CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Leaders of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes in Wyoming have warned that an amendment proposed by their homestate U.S. senator would derail a $3.4 billion federal settlement with American Indians nationwide.
Sen. John Barrasso's amendment capping attorney fees at $50 million and making several other changes in the settlement would further delay justice for far too many Indian beneficiaries in the long-running Cobell lawsuit, the leaders wrote to key senators in a letter Wednesday.
The U.S. House has already approved the settlement, including up to $100 million for legal fees in the class-action lawsuit that alleges decades of government mismanagement of funds the federal government held in trust for Indian landowners.
The agreement calls for the Interior Department to distribute money to hundreds of thousands of Indians.
Ivan Posey, chairman of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council and Harvey Spoonhunter, chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council, urged senators to vote against the Wyoming Republican's measure.
“If Senator Barrasso's amendment passes, it will be a lost opportunity to achieve a fair settlement for Indian Country,” they said in the letter to Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
The Obama administration has said passage of the amendment could kill the settlement.
“Due to the difficulty and complexity of the negotiations, we believe that the proposed changes will negate the agreement, and thus, the resolution of 14 years of acrimonious litigation,” Attorney General Eric Holder and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar wrote to Senate leaders earlier this month.
Elouise Cobell of Browning, Mont., the lead plaintiff in the case, has also warned that any changes would cause the deal to collapse and result in more litigation.
But Barrasso, the vice chairman of the Indian Affairs committee, said plaintiffs and the government have agreed to changes in the settlement on several occasions.
Several other American Indian tribes have come out both in support and in opposition to Barrasso's amendment.
The Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association, based in Rapid City, S.D., and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, based in Portland, Ore., have both passed resolutions in favor of the amendment. The United Tribes of North Dakota and the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, based in Browning, Mont., are among those opposing the measure.
Cobell is a member of the Blackfeet Tribe.
Bill McAllister, spokesman for Cobell, said Friday he doesn't believe there's much support in the Senate for the amendment.
Barrasso was unsuccessful in pushing for a vote this week, but said Friday he hopes the Senate will take up the amendment soon.