Tribes, government agree to $1 billion settlement

YAKIMA — The federal government will pay more than $1 billion to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by American Indian tribes over mismanagement of tribal money and trust lands, under a settlement announced Wednesday.

The agreement resolves claims brought by 41 tribes from across the country to reclaim money lost in mismanaged accounts and from royalties for oil, gas, grazing and timber rights on tribal lands.

The settlement was announced jointly by the Justice Department and the Interior Department, which manages more than 100,000 leases on tribal trust lands and about 2,500 tribal trust accounts for more than 250 federally recognized tribes.

“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,” Attorney General Eric Holder said.

Ending the long-running dispute allows the governments involved to move beyond distrust and antagonism, and empowers Indian communities going forward, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.

All tribes have had a dark relationship with the federal government, said Gary Hayes, chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, whose reservation covers southwest Colorado, southeast Utah and northern New Mexico. But the settlements will assist tribal governments in supplementing decades of inadequate funding throughout Indian Country, helping to improve public safety, infrastructure and health care, he said.

“The seeds that we plant today will profit us in the future and continue for generations to come,” Hayes said.

The latest announcement follows a $3.4 billion settlement in a class-action lawsuit brought by the late Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe from Browning, Mont. That deal settled cases brought by more than 300,000 individual Indians over the government’s mismanagement of trust lands.

Congress delayed approval of that settlement for months. Unlike the Cobell case, money for the latest settlement has already been appropriated under a congressionally approved judgment fund, Interior spokesman Adam Fetcher said.

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