April V. Taylor
The U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of the Interior have proposed a historic $940 million settlement with a nationwide class of Native American Tribes and tribal entities to resolve a 25-year-old legal dispute related to claims that the U.S. contracted with tribes to run programs but did not pay the full amounts required by the law. The nearly $1 billion settlement with 645 Native American tribes stems from a 1990 lawsuit that claims the government failed to pay its portion of federal contracts for housing, education, law enforcement, healthcare and other support programs which left people on tribal lands decimated by suffering.
The case was brought before the Supreme Court in 2012, and justices ruled for the tribes. Zuni Pueblo governor Val Panteah states, “Deep and painful cuts were made every year,” that precipitated “a financial death spiral” for his community. He also states, “The federal government’s conduct was not just cruel and wrong, it was illegal.”
This is not the first massive class-action lawsuit to be settled between Native American tribes and the federal government in recent years. The government was forced to pay $3.4 billion in a 2010 settlement over royalties owed to generations of individual Indian landowners. In 2014, Navajo Nation leaders received $554 million from the Obama administration over the mismanagement of resources on its reservation.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell states, “This landmark settlement represents another important step in the Obama Administration’s efforts to turn the page on past challenges in our government-to-government relationship with tribes. Tribal self-determination and self-governance will continue to be our North Star as we navigate a new chapter in this important relationship and we are committed to fully funding contract support costs so that tribal contracting can be more successful.”
The settlement must still be approved by a federal judge. Unlike other settlements, it does not have to be approved by Congress, and the money would be taken from a judgment fund of the Treasury Department. It represents the largest government settlement in U.S. history. Tribes are scheduled to begin receiving payments from the settlement within the next six to ten months.