Published: April 13, 2012
In one of the largest financial settlements made to American Indian tribes, the federal government said this week that it had ended dozens of lawsuits by agreeing to pay tribes more than $1 billion for the mismanagement of funds and natural resources that the government holds in trust.
The Justice Department announced on Wednesday that it had agreed to pay 41 tribes — many in the Western United States — a total of about $1.023 billion because the Interior and Treasury Departments had failed to adequately oversee concessions on Indian lands from companies that exploit a wide variety of resources, including minerals, timber, oil and gas, dating back more than 100 years in some cases.
The Interior Department, which manages about 56 million acres for Indian tribes and oversees more than 100,000 leases on those lands, has long been accused by tribes of doing a poor job of keeping track of the tribal funds it maintains and of not being diligent in collecting fees from companies that hold leases on reservations and elsewhere in Indian country. In addition to administering the land leases, the Interior Department manages about 2,500 trust accounts for more than 250 tribes.
“These settlements fairly and honorably resolve historical grievances over the accounting and management of tribal trust funds, trust lands and other nonmonetary trust resources that, for far too long, have been a source of conflict between Indian tribes and the United States,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement.
The Interior Department says it has developed better accounting systems to avoid future problems.
About 60 other similar lawsuits by tribes against the United States have not been settled, the government said.
The amount each tribe will receive is based on a formula that takes into account how much land and money the government held in trust, and the value of the concessions. Tribes holding oil and gas concessions, which are usually of far greater value, generally will receive the most from the settlement.
The Osage tribe of Oklahoma, for example — because of its extensive oil and gas reserves — will get $380 million. The tribe has about 16,000 members.
Among the other 41 tribes receiving money are the Minnesota Chippewa tribe, which has about 40,000 members and will get about $2 million; the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington State, which has about 10,000 members and will get $193 million; and the Nez Perce tribe, which has 4,000 members on its Idaho reservation, and will receive $34 million.
Many tribes say they have not decided how to spend the money. In most cases, tribal councils — the elected governing bodies — will have the ultimate authority. Tribes are variously considering making monthly payments to members, establishing loan programs, financing social service groups, improving infrastructure on reservations and undertaking environmental initiatives.
Heather Keen, a spokeswoman for the Coeur d’Alene tribe in Idaho, said that while the tribe was doing well economically — it generates $309 million annually in economic activity, including at a casino resort — the $18 million the 2,000-member tribe will receive represents an important boost.
Large swaths of the tribe’s land, she said, were damaged by clear-cutting in the 1970s and 1980s.
Some tribes will get the money as early as next week, arriving at a time when many reservations rank among the nation’s poorest places. About half of the people on the Mescalero Apache reservation in New Mexico, for example, live in poverty. In the 1990s, the tribe considered storing nuclear waste on the reservation because members would have earned about $250 million in payments over 40 years. Now the tribe, which has about 4,000 members, will get $33 million from the settlement.
Chief James Allan, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene tribe, said that despite longstanding tensions between tribes and the federal government, the settlement represented the fairness with which the Obama administration had treated American Indians.
“They have kept their promise to Native Americans to ensure we are heard in Washington,” Mr. Allan said. “He has not made treaties with us, but he gave us his word. And his word has been golden.”
President Obama signed legislation in December 2010 authorizing payment for a similar, though far larger, settlement for Indians. That money, totaling $3.4 billion, has not been distributed because of several pending lawsuits.