A federal judge has approved a $940 million settlement between the United States and Native American tribes over claims the government shorted tribes for decades on contract costs to manage education, law enforcement and other federal services. The approval starts the funds release process, which will pay out to claims by individual tribes over several months. Nearly 700 tribes or tribal agencies are expected to claim compensation, with amounts ranging from an estimated $8,000 for some Alaska Native villages and communities elsewhere to $58 million for the Navajo Nation.
Some tribes claimed compensation for federal contracts dating all the way back to the 1970s, when a policy change allowed tribes to gain more oversight of federal programs meant to fulfill obligations established through treaties and other agreements. The case was first filed in 1990 by the Ramah Navajo Chapter, along with the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota and Zuni Pueblo.
Val Panteah, governor of Zuni Pueblo, described “a financial death spiral” that came as his government tried to offset losses from the contracts in New Mexico. Other tribal leaders described trying to stem losses from the underfunded contracts with painful budget cuts as they tried to meet critical needs in their communities. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the tribes and sent the case back to the lower courts before the Interior Department announced a proposed settlement in September 2015. Congress has since appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars to fully fund ongoing contract support costs for tribes.
The settlement is the latest in a recent string of major agreements between the United States Department and tribes to resolve long-running legal disputes that languished for years. “It just shows the Obama administration has been working throughout two terms to stop litigating with tribes,” said Kevin Washburn, former U.S. Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. “Now, even in the last year of the administration, they’re getting this lengthy case settled.”