What Is Owed to Native Americans?

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A lawsuit over billions of dollars in royalties collected from oil and gas companies that leased Native American land has meandered through the court system for so long that a federal judge recently compared the case to Charles Dickens's "Bleak House," a tome about a long-running and convoluted legal dispute.

"The 'suit has, in course of time, become so complicated' that 'no two lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises,' " U.S. District Judge James Robertson wrote in a long January opinion, using Dickens's words to describe the 12-year odyssey of Cobell v. Kempthorne.

On Monday, Robertson began overseeing what is expected to be a two-week-long bench trial in a contentious saga that has seen numerous legal twists and political turns worthy of Dickens.

Robertson is hoping to answer the last key question in the legal battle: How much money, if any, is owed to hundreds of thousands of Native Americans who sued over alleged improper management of the gas and oil royalties by the Interior Department over the last 121 years? The plaintiffs are seeking at least $58 billion, according to court records.

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