Feds to pay $940M to settle tribal contracts

Mary Hudetz
Associated Press

Albuquerque, N.M. — The Obama administration has agreed to pay a group of Native American tribes nearly $1 billion to settle a decades-old claim that they weren’t adequately compensated as they managed law enforcement, education and other federal services on reservations.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Justice Department officials plan to announce the proposed class-action settlement Thursday along with leaders from the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Zuni Pueblo and Ramah Chapter of the Navajo Nation. The named plaintiff in the contract-dispute lawsuit first filed in 1990.

The $940 million proposed payout to the tribes and tribal agencies would represent the latest in a string of major settlements between tribes and the U.S. in the last five years. It still must be approved in federal district court.

“We had been litigating with Indian Country aggressively before the Obama administration came in,” Kevin Washburn, head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, told The Associated Press in an interview last week. “Rather than the federal government and tribes fighting all the time and litigating against one another, we need to be partners looking toward the future.”

In 2010, the Interior Department settled a class action lawsuit named for Elouise Cobell of the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana for $3.4 billion dollars over lost royalties owed to generations of individual Indian landowners. Last year, the administration agreed to a $554 million settlement with Navajo Nation leaders over the mismanagement of resources on the sprawling, 27,000-square-mile reservation.

The federal government’s latest settlement is the result of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision ruling in favor of the tribes in the long-running dispute over federal contracts.

The tribes had argued the government did not appropriate enough money to cover costs under the agreements, and the underfunded contracts meant tribes faced shortfalls as they tried to meet essential needs in their communities ranging from health services to housing.

Since 1975, tribes have been able to opt into federal contracts under the Indian Self-Determination Act and gain oversight of BIA programs meant to fulfill the government’s trust obligations to Native Americans.

More than 600 hundred tribal entities, including governments and their organizations, are class members in the lawsuit.