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Feds agree to pay $1B to settle tribal trust claims

Tohono O'odham among 5 Az tribes included in deal

WASHINGTON – Federal officials announced a $1 billion settlement Wednesday of claims filed by 41 tribes, including five from Arizona, who said the government had long mismanaged their trust lands.

The settlement ends 22 months of negotiation and more than a century of conflict between the government and the tribes over management of tribal trust lands.

"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," said Attorney General Eric Holder in a prepared statement.

Arizona tribes included in the settlement were the Hualapai, Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians, Quechan Indian Tribe of the Fort Yuma Reservation, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and the Tohono O'odham Nation, the Justice Department said.

Representatives of those tribes were not immediately available for comment Wednesday.

The Department of the Interior holds nearly 56 million acres of land "in trust" for some American Indian tribes and people. It is responsible for managing sales and leases on those lands for everything from mining to grazing, natural gas and electrical resources, and is supposed to return profits to the tribes.

"The Department of Interior had a long period of time when they weren't doing a very good job of managing these accounts," said Matt Fletcher, director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center at Michigan State University College of Law.

"They often didn't know whose money was in the account, where they were supposed to get the money, where it was coming from," Fletcher said.

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Wednesday's White House announcement follows the government's $3.4 billion settlement in 2009 of a massive tribal trust claim by a class representing about a half-million Native Americans. That settlement ended a fight begun in 1996 by Blackfeet member Elouise Cobell that affected members from eight Arizona tribes, among others.

"These settlements demonstrate the U.S.'s strong commitment to resolving the pending claims in an expedited, fair and just manner," Ignacia Moreno, an assistant attorney general, said Wednesday.

Moreno said more needs to be done but that the latest decision is an "important milestone in our relationship." She said it would create a framework for improving communication between tribes and the Justice Department, as well as a dispute-resolution process for future trust claims.

Fletcher said the settlement is as important for what it means to the future as what it means to the past for tribes.

"Moving forward, they'll be able to have more control over management of their trust assets and there'll be more sophisticated methods for doing so," Fletcher said. "Really the big impact for both this settlement and Cobell is making sure this sort of thing doesn't happen again."

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar praised the work of tribal and federal partners in reaching the decision, saying it would stop "the limbo of endless litigation."

Fletcher said the amount each tribe gets from the settlement depends on how much land they hold and how much money the federal government managed – or mismanaged. An Interior spokesman could not provide a breakdown of the payout.

Tribal leaders at the White House announcement thanked the federal government for its efforts and expressed hope.

"The seeds that we plant today will profit us in the future and count for generations to come," said Gary Hayes, chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

Coueur d'Alene Chairman Chief Allen said it was a great day for his people.

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"We never asked for a hand-out," he said. "All we've ever asked for is a fair shake and a seat at the table."

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Salvador Rodriguez/Cronkite News Service

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, shown here in a February hearing, praised the tribes for their efforts, saying that without a settlement both sides faced a “limbo of endless litigation.”

Trust busted

The $1 billion settlement of tribal trust mismanagement claims announced Wednesday follows a 2009 payment of $3.4 billion to settle a separate set of trust claims.

  • The Interior Department manages nearly 56 million acres of tribal trust lands and more than 100,000 leases on those lands.
  •  The department also manages about 2,500 tribal trust accounts for more than 250 tribes.
  • Tribes and tribal members have long claimed that the government failed to properly manage those accounts, leading to lawsuits.
  • In the latest case, 41 tribes that had filed claims approached the government in 2009 seeking a settlement.
  • Negotiations began in 2010 between tribal lawyers and officials of the Treasury and the departments of Justice and Interior.
  • Wednesday’s $1.023 billion settlement with the 41 tribes capped 22 months of negotiations.
  • The tribes agree to drop their claims under the settlement, which includes provisions to improve trust management and procedures to ease resolution of future diputes.
  • Arizona tribes in the settlement are the Hualapai, Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians, Quechan Tribe of the Fort Yuma Reservation, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and the Tohono O’odham Nation.