Nonprofit Newswire | Blackfeet Woman Wins Fight and Owes Big

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May 22, 2010; Source: Lake Wylie Pilot | We’ve written before about Elouise Cobell’s long struggle against the U.S. Department of Interior to pay royalties owed to Native Americans for the government’s use of Indian land that it supposedly held in trust for its owners. Moneys that should have been accounted for and paid to the owners were never delivered. Now, after 14 years of leading this class action suit against four presidential administrations, the Obama Administration has agreed to settle the case for $3.4 billion.

Now Cobell only has to wait for Congressional approval of the agreement to see this case through to payments from the trust accounts. We anticipated that the question of lawyers fees would come up, with critics such as Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) calling for a lawyer’s fees cap of $50 million, though Cobell and the lead attorney for the plaintiffs suggest that the proposed fee of a little less than $100 million is less than 3 percent of the total settlement.

The attorney notes that the case has had more than 3,600 court filings, 220 days of trial, 80 published court decisions, and 10 appeals. Cobell herself spent the $300,000 she received as a MacArthur Foundation genius award winner on the case and hopes to be reimbursed. Her nonprofit, the Blackfeet Reservation Development Fund, has to repay $11 million in foundation loans that it received to help finance the ongoing costs of the litigation.

We’re a little stunned: foundations made PRIs toward the litigation against what capital—a percentage of the settlement? Foundations ought to write off their desires for repayment of funds from the Development Fund. Their recompense should be their stake in helping Cobell win one of the landmark civil rights cases of our era.—Rick Cohen