The Obama administration has settled lawsuits with 17 Native American tribes that accused the federal government of long mismanaging their funds and natural resources.
With these settlements, the administration will have resolved the majority of outstanding claims, some dating back a century, with more than 100 tribes and totaling more than $3.3 billion, according to the Justice and Interior departments.
“This is an important achievement that will end, honorably and fairly, decades of contention that not only sapped valuable resources but also strained relationships,” said Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates.
The settlements announced Monday, totaling $492.8 million, come at the same time that thousands of Native Americans representing tribes from across the country have joined the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota to protest the 1,172-mile Dakota Access Pipeline, which they say threatens their water supply and traverses sacred Indian burial grounds.
This month, a federal judge ruled against the Standing Rock tribe’s request to halt construction of the crude-oil pipeline. But the decision by District Judge James E. Boasberg was effectively put on hold when the departments of Justice, Army and Interior announced that the Army Corps of Engineers would not grant an easement before it determines whether it needs to reconsider previous decisions about the pipeline. It has yet to make that determination.
Meanwhile, thousands of Native Americans remain camped out in a nearby field in protest. Native leaders also protested the pipeline Monday in Washington outside the White House Tribal Nations Conference, where tribal leaders met with President Obama.
Many tribal leaders say Obama has done more for Indian Country than any other president. They point to the administration’s efforts to improve the justice system on reservations and work directly with the tribes on long-standing disputes over land, such as the settlements announced Monday.
The 17 tribes affected include the Gila River, Colorado River and San Carlos Apache tribes in Arizona; the White Earth Nation in Minnesota; and Oregon’s Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation. They had accused the federal government of mismanaging trust lands, which are leased for timber harvesting, farming, grazing, and oil and gas extraction, among other uses.
The Interior Department manages about 56 million acres of trust lands for federally recognized tribes and more than 100,000 leases on those lands. The department also manages about 2,500 tribal trust accounts for more than 250 tribes.
“It’s a huge deal when you can sit down with the tribal leaders and see in their faces what this settlement will mean for their tribes and the fact they think they are being heard for the first time in a meaningful way,” said Jim Gette of the Justice Department’s environment and natural resources division.
Four years ago, the Justice and Interior departments reached settlements totaling more than $1 billion with 41 tribes for similar claims. Since then, the departments have settled the claims of 57 more tribes, including those announced Monday. In 2014, the Obama administration agreed to pay the Navajo Nation, located in parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, $554 million in the largest settlement with a single American Indian tribe.
“Settling these long-standing disputes reflects the Obama administration’s continued commitment to reconciliation and empowerment for Indian Country,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement.