Justice. Native Americans. Those are normally combined in the same sentence. But today, twice. In addition to the editorial here, we are happy to read the news below. Recognizing a mistake is a good first step. Taking action to fix the mistake is a great next step. Plenty more to be done on this one:
The U.S. government has agreed to pay a total of $492 million to 17 American Indian tribes for mismanaging natural resources and other tribal assets, according to an attorney who filed most of the suits.
In a joint press release by the Departments of Interior and Justice, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel said, “Settling these long-standing disputes reflects the Obama Administration’s continued commitment to reconciliation and empowerment for Indian Country.”
The settlements mark the end of a push by the Obama administration to resolve what the U.S. says is more than 100 lawsuits totaling more than $3.3 billion brought by American Indian individuals and tribal governments against the federal government. The policy of reaching settlements on the disputes, some of which date back more than a century, is part of a campaign promise the president made to American Indians before he took office.
“Few have been ignored by Washington as long as Native Americans, the first Americans. Too often, Washington has paid lip-service to working with tribes,” then-candidate Obama said in a speech at the Crow Nation Reservation in Montana in May 2008. “My Indian policy starts with honoring the unique government to government relationship, and ensuring treaty responsibilities are met.”
Those treaty responsibilities include agreements dating back to the 1800s that made the U.S. government the trustee for huge swaths of tribal land. The Department of the Interior says it manages almost 56 million acres of land on behalf of tribes, and handles at least 100,000 leases on that land for a wide variety of uses including housing, timber harvest, farming, livestock grazing, oil and gas extraction. More than 250 tribes have some assets held in trust by the federal government.
Under those trust agreements, the U.S. government must make sure tribes receive “just compensation” for the use of their land or resources. “The government bought the land from Indians, but it didn’t pay the Indians,” says Melody McCoy, a staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund who has spent 20 years handling lawsuits against the federal government over alleged trust mismanagement and underpayment.
“The U.S. government would say it held the assets in trusts benevolently, for the protection of Indian lands and money,” says McCoy, who handled 13 of the 17 newly announced settlements. “The flip side of that is that in exchange, the government was supposed to be a good trustee, and it wasn’t. Land was not managed well. Money and resources were not managed well.”
Read the whole story here.