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The US government has agreed to pay a total of $ 492 million to 17 Native American tribes for mismanagement of natural resources and other tribal assets, according to a lawyer who has filed most of the lawsuits.
In a joint press release from the Home and Justice Departments, Home Secretary Sally Jewel said, “The resolution of these long-standing disputes reflects the Obama administration’s continued commitment to reconciliation and empowerment of the Indian country.
The settlements mark the end of the Obama administration’s efforts to resolve what the United States says are more than 100 lawsuits totaling more than $ 3.3 billion brought by American Indians and tribal governments against the government federal. The dispute settlement policy, some of which dates back over a century, is part of a campaign pledge the president made to Native Americans before he took office.
“Few have been ignored by Washington for as long as Native Americans, the first Americans. Too often Washington has pretended to work with tribes,” the Obama-era candidate said in a speech at the nation’s reservation Crow, Montana in May 2008. “My Indian policy begins with honoring the unique government-to-government relationship and ensuring that treaty responsibilities are met. “
These treaty responsibilities include agreements dating back to the 1800s that made the US government the administrator of vast tracts of tribal land. The Home Office says it manages nearly 56 million acres of land on behalf of the tribes and manages at least 100,000 leases on that land for a wide variety of uses, including housing, timber harvesting. , agriculture, cattle grazing, oil and gas extraction. Over 250 tribes have assets held in trust by the federal government.
Under these trust agreements, the US government must ensure that tribes receive “fair compensation” for the use of their lands or resources. “The government bought the land from the Indians, but it did not pay the Indians,” said Melody McCoy, a lawyer with the Native American Rights Fund who spent 20 years managing lawsuits against the federal government for mismanagement. and suspected underpayment of the trust.
“The US government would say it is holding the assets in trusts with benevolence, for the protection of Indian land and moneys,” said McCoy, who managed 13 of the 17 newly announced settlements. “The flip side is that in return the government was supposed to be a good administrator, and it wasn’t. The land was not well managed. Money and resources weren’t. were not well managed. “
The result has been decades of allegedly lost income for Native Americans across the country.
Before the Obama administration could focus on resolving more than 100 tribal lawsuits, it had to resolve a 13-year class action lawsuit alleging the government failed to pay individuals billions of dollars in profits on land that had been seized. American Indians. A $ 3.4 billion deal was struck in 2009.
Tribal lawsuits proved more difficult to settle, as they often involved payments that tribes should have made over decades. “There was potential for litigation and substantial problems for both sides,” which brought both sides to the negotiating table, McCoy said. In 2012, the administration had reached agreements with dozens of tribes.
The regulations announced on Monday are the second round of agreements. McCoy says that since Obama took office, there have been 95 total settlements with tribes, and 11 more, some of which she manages, are in active negotiation. “It’s quite an accomplishment,” she said.
While most of the 17 settlements are still awaiting final court approval, a handful of documents have been released naming the Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma, the Colorado River Indian Tribes, and the Gila River Indian Community. The settlements range from $ 25,000 to $ 45 million, says McCoy, who has seen documents for 15 of the 17 settlements announced.
She says that tribal settlement money will be transferred directly from the US treasury to tribal governments, and that there is no stipulation on how it will be spent. Breaking away from more than a century of politics, the US government is now insisting that tribal governments accept payments, refusing to hold settlement assets in trusts.
“Going forward, the United States certainly has an opportunity to treat tribes more fairly,” McCoy said. As for the tribes that she has personally represented against the federal government, she says she is satisfied.
“My clients feel like they’ve had a tremendous opportunity to engage with US government-to-government at the political level,” she says.