The federal government will pay more than $1 billion to settle a series of lawsuits brought by American Indian tribes over mismanagement of tribal money and trust lands, under a settlement announced Wednesday.
The agreement resolves claims brought by 41 tribes from across the country, including the Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, Colville and Nez Perce tribes, to reclaim money lost in mismanaged accounts and from royalties for oil, gas, grazing and timber rights on tribal lands. Negotiations continue on dozens of other cases.
“Today is a great day because it is a new day – a day when tribes across this nation can close the door on many wrongs of the past and open the door to a future of mutual respect and cooperation,” said Chief Allan, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, during a White House event where the settlement was announced.
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe will receive $18 million as part of the settlement, according to a new release from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.
Among other area tribes, the Nez Perce Tribe will receive $33.7 million, and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation will receive $193 million. The Colville Tribes’ settlement was announced in February.
Information about the Spokane Tribe of Indians’ settlement was not immediately available, and attempts made to reach the tribe’s spokeswoman, Jamie Sijohn, were unsuccessful.
Department of Interior spokesman Adam Fetcher said the settlement figures for each tribe were considered confidential, though some were entered into U.S. District Court record in Washington, D.C. Among those, recipients of large sums include Montana’s Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes at $150 million and New Mexico’s Mescalero Apache Nation at nearly $33 million. By comparison, the Nooksack Tribe in northwest Washington, which has about 2,000 members, will receive $25,000.
“These settlements fairly and honorably resolve historical grievances over the accounting and management of tribal trust funds, trust lands, and other non-monetary trust resources that, for far too long, have been a source of conflict between Indian tribes and the United States,” Attorney General Eric Holder said.
The Nez Perce Tribe, which has about 3,500 members, said in a news release that revenue, including from timber, limestone and other natural resources that was managed by the federal government in trust accounts was managed so poorly that it was “almost impossible to determine the exact amount of money” the federal government was holding.
“Although this settlement does not erase the fact that the United States failed to uphold its fiduciary obligations to the tribe, the tribe is pleased to reach a resolution to these claims that will provide some benefit to the Nez Perce Tribe and its members for these past wrongs,” said Brooklyn Baptiste, Chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee.
Ending the long-running dispute allows the governments involved to move beyond distrust and antagonism, and empowers Indian communities going forward, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.
The Department of the Interior manages more than 100,000 leases on tribal trust lands and about 2,500 tribal trust accounts for more than 250 federally recognized tribes.
All tribes have had a dark relationship with the federal government, said Gary Hayes, chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, whose reservation covers southwest Colorado, southeast Utah and northern New Mexico. But the settlements will assist tribal governments in supplementing decades of inadequate funding throughout Indian Country, helping to improve public safety, infrastructure and health care, he said.
A total of 114 tribal governments filed suit after Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe from Browning, Mont., brought a similar claim on behalf of thousands of individual Indians over the government’s mismanagement of their trust lands.
The government ultimately settled the Cobell case for $3.4 billion, but it remains under appeal for various reasons by four people.
Congress delayed approval of that settlement for months. But unlike the Cobell case, money for the tribes’ settlements already has been appropriated under a congressionally approved judgment fund, said Fetcher, the Interior spokesman.