The Navajo Nation on Friday September 26 signed a historic settlement with the U.S. Department of the Interior, resolving a longstanding dispute over alleged mismanagement of trust resources stretching back more than half a century.
The $554 million settlement is the largest ever awarded to an American Indian tribe from the federal government.
Officials from the Interior Department joined tribal leaders in the Window Rock, Arizona, capital of the Navajo Nation for a signing ceremony that brought to an end a legal conflict that has spanned the last eight years and colored the tribe’s relationship with the federal government, Navajo President Ben Shelly said.
“The $554 million represents more than the end of a legal battle,” Shelly said. “This marks a turning point in our relationship with the federal government. We are taking one small forward step toward self-sufficiency, one step away from dependency on the federal government.”
During the ceremony, held under blue skies against a backdrop of the sandstone Window Rock formation, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called the settlement a landmark agreement that helps address a painful history full of broken promises.
“This is a time for calm winds, a time to look forward and work together,” she said. “We are starting a new chapter in Indian relationships that I am very proud of … because what we really want to do is empower Native communities, empower Navajo communities.”
The suit, filed in 2006, claimed that the government had failed to invest tribal resources in a way that would maximize profits. The federal government oversees 14 million acres of land held by the Navajo Nation and leases out parcels for coal and oil extraction, timber harvesting, farming, housing and other purposes stemming from an agreement forged by treaty in 1868.
The tribe claims that mismanagement dates back to 1946. According to the suit, the tribe originally sought $900 million in damages.
The case was precipitated by the 1823 Supreme Court ruling in Johnson vs. M’Intosh, which defined the Doctrine of Discovery or the loss of tribes’ “absolute title to land,” Navajo Attorney General Harrison Tsosie said.
“Many of us don’t understand that these are the legal principles we live with today,” he said. “This settlement is not an end to a problem. It’s a recognition and a beginning of a dialogue about that problem. This is a beginning, not an end. There are many Indian tribes in the United States that are in the same predicament we were—having to sue the federal government.”
Although the settlement is monetary, it also represents new opportunity, said LoRenzo Bates, speaker Pro Tem of the Navajo Nation Council and chairman of the council’s Budget and Finance Committee.
“As sovereign nations, we reached a settlement and resolved issues in order to move forward in our relationship,” he said. “This is a historic agreement, and one between the Navajo Nation and the United States that signifies an opportunity for our Navajo people. It presents an opportunity in such a way for our government and people to work together to determine how the benefits of this agreement can help, and will help our nation to prosper now and in the long term.”
Photo: Julia Mitchell
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell speaks at the historic settlement signing under Window Rock.
At 27,000 square miles and extending into parts of three western states, the Navajo Nation is the largest reservation in the country. Its population tops 300,000, but much of the reservation is plagued with poverty, unemployment and lack of infrastructure. Among its most dire needs are roads, housing, renewable energy and infrastructure—including even the simplest modern conveniences like electricity and running water.
Bates wants to see the settlement money invested in a way that benefits future generations.
“It will be a true exercise in our nation’s sovereignty as to how we determine the use of these funds,” he said. “It is my belief that our nation’s leadership will see to it that it benefits all of our people for the years to come.”
Although the settlement represents only 60 percent of what the Navajo Nation claims the government owes, both parties deem it fair. Reaching a settlement also opens the door to resolving additional grievances, said Sam Hirsch, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s division of Environmental and Natural Resources.
Calling the government’s trust responsibility a “sacred vow to be upheld,” Hirsch said the settlement helps bring to an end a “cycle of distrust, disenfranchisement and disappointment.”
“We recognize that the journey we are on together constitutes a future, a fortune and fate that we all share, and leads us toward a new day in the government-to-government relationship between the United States and the Navajo Nation,” he said. “This settlement will provide substantial tangible benefits to the Navajo Nation and its members. These benefits include monetary relief, as well as commitments by the United States government to improve the way in which it carries out the trust relationship with the Navajo Nation.”
The Navajo Nation’s settlement is one of many reached in recent months between tribes and the Interior Department, which already has settled with 80 other tribes with redress totaling $2.61 billion. The Navajo settlement is the largest by more than $170 million.
The $554 million check, cut by the federal Department of Justice, is expected to arrive at the Navajo Nation by the end of the year, Jewell said.
“It will be here, in the bank, earning interest,” she said.
The Navajo Nation plans to hold public forums to generate comment from citizens about how to spend the money. The first forum is set for October 6 in Chinle, Arizona.