At a public hearing at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in Washington, DC Judge Thomas F. Hogan yesterday approved settlement agreements for 25 tribes represented by the Native American Rights Fund (NARF). The settlements end cases that have been in the Court for six to ten years against the United States government over claims by tribes for historical breach of trust accounting and trust funds and trust resources management duties.

NARF’s clients were among 35 tribes whose settlements were approved. Brooklyn Baptiste, the Vice Chair of the Tribal Executive Council of the Nez Perce Tribe located in Idaho was among NARF’s clients to attend the hearing. The Nez Perce Tribe served as the lead plaintiff in a case filed by NARF in 2006. “We were happy to head up a fight that has led to the resolution of so many tribal claims,” said Vice Chair Baptiste.

Following an opening summary by attorneys for the United States, NARF Staff Attorney Melody McCoy addressed the Court’s queries about the scope and fairness of the historic settlements. She assured the Court that the settlements involved only the claims of the respective Tribes, that each Tribe made an informed and independent decision regarding its own settlement terms and that the settlements were the product of arms’ length high level government to government negotiations.

The United States attorney in Court credited the initiation of the unique settlement process in these cases to a letter written to President Obama in September 2009 by NARF and other attorneys on behalf of dozens of tribes in trust cases. The letter reminded the President of his campaign promise to tribal leaders to seek fair settlement of the over 100 cases filed by tribes against the government that the Obama Administration would inherit. “Now, less than four years later, we have these settlements of century old claims,” said NARF Executive Director John Echohawk. “It’s remarkable, but it can be done.”

The total amount that the government will pay under the 25 court approved NARF client settlements is over $350 million. The Court’s approval of the settlements triggers payment from the Department of the Treasury to the settling tribes which is expected to occur within the next six to eight weeks. NARF continues to work on settlement of more than twenty of its remaining tribal clients’ historical breach of trust claims.

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