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Honoring Our Pledge to the First Americans: Indian Trust Management and Water Rights

Two years ago, President Barack Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar vowed that this administration would work hand-in-hand with Native Americans to empower tribal governments, fulfill our trust responsibilities to tribal members and help tribal leaders build safer, stronger, healthier, and more prosperous communities.

We recently took a giant step toward fulfilling that promise. On Nov. 30, Congress approved five major settlements for Indian country that are nothing short of historic.

First, Congress authorized the Cobell settlement, an agreement that will resolve the 14-year, highly contentious class action lawsuit regarding the U.S. government’s trust management and accounting of individual American Indian trust accounts. The settlement honorably and responsibly addresses long-standing injustices and demonstrates President Obama’s commitment to reconciliation and empowerment for Indian nations.

With the approval of the settlement, a fund totaling $1.5 billion will be distributed to class members to compensate them for their historical accounting claims and to resolve potential claims that prior U.S. officials mismanaged the administration of trust assets.

The settlement also establishes a $1.9 billion fund for the voluntary buy-back and consolidation of fractionated land interests to address the continued proliferation of thousands of new trust accounts caused by the division of land interests through succeeding generations and for other trust related activities. The land consolidation program will provide individual Indians with an opportunity to consolidate and transfer divided ownership interests to their tribal governments, where they will remain in trust for the benefit of tribal communities. Individual Indians will receive cash payments for these transfers and, as an additional incentive, transfers will trigger government payments into a $60 million Indian scholarship fund.

It is important to note that Cobell is only the start of true trust reform. The Department of the Interior, in consultation with tribes, is establishing a Secretarial Commission on Indian Trust Administration and Reform. This commission will undertake a forward-looking, comprehensive evaluation of how Interior manages and administers our trust responsibilities. We need to be more transparent and customer-friendly. The status quo is not acceptable.

Second, Congress approved four Indian water rights settlements—totaling more than $1 billion—that will deliver clean drinking water to tribes in New Mexico, Arizona and Montana. For these communities, the permanent water supply will offer economic security and end decades of water allocation controversy and contention among neighboring communities.

Administration support for four water rights settlements in a single Congress is unprecedented. The settlements reflect the willingness of the parties, including state, tribal and other stakeholders, as well as this administration’s commitment, to work together constructively rather than stay locked in an endless cycle of litigation.

The Obama administration is making progress along a wide front in fulfilling the president’s pledge to our first Americans, investing hundreds of millions of recovery dollars in new schools and roads, strengthening tribal law enforcement, improving Indian education and speeding land into trust to expand tribal resource bases.

But there is no doubt that much work remains. That is why President Obama announced that he is hosting a second White House Tribal Nations Conference Dec. 16 to build upon our commitment to strengthen the nation-to-nation relationship with Indian country.

Native Americans must be full partners in our nation’s economy, thrive in safe communities, and have equal access to quality education and health care.

Step by step—as with the passage of Cobell and the four historic water rights settlements—we are getting there.

David J. Hayes is the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.