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Why the U.S. Government Is Paying Half a Billion in Settlements to 17 Tribal Governments

That adds to 95 cases the U.S. has settled with native groups since 2012

Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Oren Lyons, Ph.D., (right), and The Tadodaho of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chief Sidney Hill, examine a treaty at the National Museum of the American Indian (Smithsonian Institution)
smithsonian.com

The Interior and Justice Departments announced earlier this week in a press release that U.S. government has reached an agreement with 17 tribal governments across the nation to pay $492 million for mismanaging money and natural resources held in trust for the benefit of native people.

According to Rebecca Hersher at NPR, the settlement caps a four-year push by the Obama administration to resolve more than 100 lawsuits brought against the government by indigenous people claiming the Interior Department did not have their best interests at heart while managing lands in their names.

According to the Department of the Interior, it manages almost 56 million acres of trust lands for federally recognized native people including 100,000 leases on those lands for housing, logging, farming, easements and oil and gas drilling. The agency also manages 2,500 native trust accounts.

“The government bought the land from Indians, but it didn't pay the Indians,” staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund Melody McCoy, who handled 13 of the cases just settled, tells Hersher. “The U.S. government would say it held the assets in trusts benevolently, for the protection of Indian lands and money. The flip side of that is that in exchange, the government was supposed to be a good trustee, and it wasn’t. Land was not managed well. Money and resources were not managed well.”

As a result of poor management, the plaintiffs claim they lost decades of potential income. The settlements include the Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma, The Colorado River Indian People and the Gila River Indian Community and range from $25,000 to $45 million.

These most recent settlements are part of a much longer effort to address tribal lawsuits by the government. In 2009, the government settled what turned out to be an epic, 13-year-long class-action lawsuit, paying $3.4 billion to Native American plaintiffs claiming the 1887 Dawes Act and other actions cheated them out of decades of income.

Since then, besides the 17 recent cases, the Obama administration has settled lawsuits from 95 native groups. McCoy says 11 cases are still pending. So far, the government has paid $1.9 billion to resolve those cases. In a break from a century of policy, the government will pay the settlements directly to the tribal governments to spend as they please, instead of holding the cash in trust, which was customary in the past.

Earlier this week at the annual Tribal Nations Conference, President Obama urged native leaders to keep pushing for visibility and a voice with whatever administration succeeds his, Valerie Volcovici and Julia Harte at Reuters.

“Settling these long-standing disputes reflects the Obama Administration’s continued commitment to reconciliation and empowerment for Indian Country,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell says in the press release. “As we turn the page on past challenges in our government-to-government relationship with tribes, we’re moving forward with tribal governments to ensure proper management of tribal trust assets.” 

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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