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Woman challenges historic Native class-action settlement

Woman challenges historic Native class-action settlement

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Mary Lee Johns isn't one to back down from a fight.

So when she learned Friday that attorneys for plaintiffs in the largest government class-action settlement in American history had sent out her name, address and phone number to thousands of their clients to urge her to stop fighting the settlement, she laughed.

"I think it's silly on their part," she said. "It's a typical ploy for people who are desperate for money."

The Lincoln woman, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, is one of 300,000 Native plaintiffs in the Cobell lawsuit against the U.S. government.

In 2010, the government agreed to pay the plaintiffs $3.4 billion for mishandling Native trust land accounts. The settlement includes money to buy back land that once had been owned by tribes but since has been sold to individual landowners.

On Friday, attorneys for the Cobell plaintiffs sent an email to their clients, asking them to contact the four plaintiffs, including Johns, who are challenging the settlement, to urge them to give up their legal challenges.

In the email, the attorneys said the four plaintiffs were delaying the settlement from being distributed to individual plaintiffs. Most of the plaintiffs are expected to receive $1,000 each.

The challenges against the settlement will delay distribution of the money for at least six months, the attorneys said. The delay could be longer if the plaintiffs appeal any decision to the Supreme Court.

If not for the legal challenges, most plaintiffs would have received their awards before Thanksgiving, the attorneys said. If any of the four plaintiffs succeeds in the legal challenges, it will kill the settlement, they said.

"This means that you would receive nothing from the settlement: no payment, no scholarship funds, no land consolidation and no further trust reform," they said.

For her part, Johns doesn't plan to give up challenging the settlement. She declined to offer detailed information about her legal challenge, but she said she disagreed with giving the federal government money to buy back former tribal land.

While most tribal members believe the land buy-back program would benefit tribes directly, Johns said, they would have to pay the government to regain any land purchased by the government as part of the program. As a result, the federal government essentially is setting aside money for itself, Johns said.

She said her legal challenge simply concerned whether the settlement was fair to the Native plaintiffs.

"If it does not meet the legal standards that are there for protection of people, it will not go through," she said.

Reach Kevin Abourezk at 402-473-7225 or


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