The U.S. government has reached settlements with 17 American Indian tribes, the latest movement in a push by President Barack Obama's administration to resolve more than 100 disputes with claims totaling more than $3.3 billion, some of which are over a century old.
The lawsuits alleged that tribal lands held in trust and managed by the U.S. government were mismanaged and that tribes never received compensation for allowing the federal government to use their land, reports NPR. The Department of the Interior manages almost 56 million acres of tribal land, which it leases out for housing, farming, grazing, and natural resource extraction.
According to Melody McCoy, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund who handled 13 of the 17 recent settlements, "The U.S. government would say it held the assets in trusts benevolently, for the protection of Indian lands and money. ... [T]he government was supposed to be a good trustee, and it wasn't. Land was not managed well. Money and resources were not managed well."
The individual settlements range from $25,000 to $45 million. But the money is just a part of the equation. McCoy says, "My clients feel like they had an extraordinary opportunity to engage with the U.S. government-to-government at the political level."
Engagement is an important step toward rebuilding trust between the federal and tribal governments.
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Tex “Red Tipped Arrow” Hall, tribal chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in North Dakota, told The Washington Post, "There’s been a bad track record. Our fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers have gone to Washington, and there’s been no promises made and no promises kept. That’s why we’ve not trusted the federal government.”
The Obama administration is taking steps to address this mistrust. He has hosted tribal leaders annually, which is "something that has rarely ever occurred," according to Eddie Brown, director of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University. And it seems to be working.
Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, said in June 2014, “The best thing that’s happened to Indian Country has been President Obama being elected.” The Standing Rock Sioux are currently resisting construction of the nearly 1,200-mile Dakota Access Pipeline. Archambault II wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times that the pipeline "would snake across our treaty lines and through our ancestral burial grounds."
There is another consideration that tribes are taking into account: Elders are dying. NPR reported in 2009 on a $1.4 billion settlement in what then Attorney General Eric Holder called "one of the largest class actions ever brought against the United States government." After the money was divided among the plaintiffs, each received about $1,000.
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Elouise Cobell, the suit's lead plaintiff, told NPR that the settlement was far less than they were entitled to, but that they felt they had to settle. "Time takes a toll, especially on elders living in abject poverty," she said, "Many of them died as we continued our struggle to settle this suit.
"The settlement can begin to address that extreme situation and provide some hope and a better quality of life for their remaining years."