When President Obama took office, he pledged to honor the United States’ treaty responsibilities to Indian tribes.  As part of fulfilling that campaign promise, the United States government recently agreed to pay $492 million dollars to 17 tribes to compensate for decades of lost income due to government mismanagement of tribal trusts.

NARF Staff Attorney Melody McCoy represented 13 of the 17 tribes in negotiations with the United States.

Starting with treaties signed in the 19th Century, the United States was named as trustee for large areas of tribal land.  Under the treaties, the United States was to hold the Indian lands and money for the benefit of the Native American people.  As trustee, they handled leasing the land for uses such as grazing, oil, and farming.  However, the government did not prove to be a good trustee. Scores of agency and private reports have criticized the government for its serious errors in administering tribal and Indian trust matters. NARF Staff Attorney Melody McCoy, who handled 13 of the recent settlements, explains, “[T]he government was supposed to be a good trustee, and it wasn’t. Land was not managed well. Money and resources were not managed well.”

The current federal policy of tribal self-determination has led the U.S. Congress to allow tribes more control over their land and resources. But this does not necessarily address or make up for centuries of federal inability or unwillingness to properly account for and manage billions of dollars of tribal trust funds and assets.

Several Native American tribes brought suit against the federal government seeking compensation for decades of lost income and opportunity.  This week’s agreements are the second round of settlements related to these trust fund missteps.  They represent a huge accomplishment on the part of the tribes and the federal government engaging on a government to government level. “Going forward, the U.S. certainly has an opportunity to treat tribes more fairly,” McCoy says.

Listen to a related news story and see the settlement order at the NPR website.

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