The U.S. government will pay $492 million to 17 American Indian tribes to settle long-standing disputes over mismanagement of natural resources and other tribal assets.
The Interior and Justice departments announced the settlement in a joint press release that came as tribal leaders from across the country attended President Barack Obama’s eighth and final White House Tribal Nations Conference. In the release, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell pointed to the President’s “continued commitment to reconciliation and empowerment for Indian country.”
The settlements help resolve more than 100 lawsuits totaling more than $3.3 billion brought by Native individuals and tribal governments – and spanning more than a century of alleged mismanagement. They also help fulfill a promise Obama made before taking office.
“Few have been ignored by Washington as long as Native Americans, the first Americans,” Obama said during a 2008 campaign speech on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana. “My Indian policy starts with honoring the unique government-to-government relationship and ensuring treaty responsibilities are met.”
Under trust agreements – some made generations ago – the government promised to make sure tribes got “just compensation” for their lands or natural resources, including lands leased for timber, agriculture or oil and gas extraction. But the government didn’t hold up its end of the agreement, said Melody McCoy, a staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund.
“We’re talking about the historical mismanagement of tribal trust funds and assets,” said McCoy, Cherokee, who has spent 20 years pursuing lawsuits against the federal government and handled 13 of the 17 cases that just settled. “The government was supposed to be a good trustee, but it wasn’t. Land and money and resources were not managed well. This was a breach of trust.”
The Interior Department manages roughly 56 million acres of trust lands for federally recognized tribes and oversees more than 100,000 leases on those lands. The department also manages about 2,500 trust accounts for more than 250 tribes.
The 17 tribes affected by the settlement include the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, the Colorado River Indian Tribe, the Gila River Indian Community, the Muscogee Creek Nation, the Penobscot Indian Nation and the Pueblo of Acoma.
“This is historical mismanagement, but it’s also a historical settlement,” McCoy said. “We expected these cases to be in litigation forever against the federal government. Settlements weren’t anything we expected until a guy named Barack Obama changed all that.”
When Obama took office in 2008, he inherited pending litigation in 100 separate cases. That was on top of other pending litigation like the Cobell and Keepseagle class-action lawsuits.
Obama tackled the Cobell case first, signing a $3.4 billion settlement in 2010. The $680 million Keepseagle settlement followed in 2010.
In 2012, the Justice and Interior departments reached settlements totaling more than $1 billion with 41 tribes for similar claims of mismanagement. Since then, the departments have settled with 57 more tribes, including the 17 announced this week – some of which are still waiting final court approval.
“These historical grievances were a barrier to our shared progress toward a higher future,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement. “…Those barriers have been removed and decades of contention have been ended honorably and fairly. These settlements reflect the shared vision, the mutual respect, and the enduring partnership that we hope to achieve between tribes and the federal government.”
In 2014, the Navajo Nation was awarded $554 million – the largest settlement with a single tribe. To date, a total of $3.3 billion in settlement dollars to tribes has been awarded.
“Each tribe’s claim with these settlements is conducted on a government-to-government basis,” McCoy said. “None of these tribes are getting accurate accountings, but they are getting compensation.
Eleven additional tribes filed claims against the government during Obama’s second term, McCoy said. All cases have either settled or are in active negotiation, and most settlements range from $25,000 to $45 million.
“The fact that Obama has settled 95 of the cases that were pending or filed when he took office speaks volumes,” McCoy said. “And some, many tribes have accepted their settlements. This has been extraordinary for both sides.”