WASHINGTON - A federal judge will today begin hearings to determine how much Washington should pay to American Indians who claim they have been cheated out of profits from land royalties for more than 120 years.
The 12-year-old case is still a long way from being finalised, however. Most of those involved in the case expect an appeal, and it is not clear how any award would be paid. Congress might have to set the money aside, a tough sell in tight times.
All the while, the plaintiffs grow older, nearing the end of their lives, uncertain if even a penny will come their way.
The Indians' 1996 suit claims they were swindled out of more than R784billion in oil, gas, grazing, timber and other royalties overseen by the Interior Department since 1887. The Indians rejected a government offer of less than R54billion last year. Now they say they are owed R455billion - a figure they argue is the government's savings from money that should have gone into individual accounts of the claimants.
The class action suit covers about 500000 Indians and their heirs.
The lead plaintiff, Elouise Cobell, said the government has "deep pockets because they have taxpayers' money and can drag it out forever".
The Indians' lawyers intend to argue that the money should be paid directly and does not require action by Congress.
The Interior Department has argued in court that the judge had no jurisdiction to award any money.
Congress could try to settle the dispute. - Sapa-AP