BY Susan M. Brazas for Lawyers.com
The settlement in the class action was reached in December 2009. In May 2010, the federal government is working on making good on its promise. The problem is how will it pay the bill?
Under the settlement, the government will:
- Pay $1.4 billion to more than 300,000 Native Americans, most of whom will get between $1,000 and $1,500
- Spend up to $2 billion to buy back parcels of land that once belonged to the Native Americans, and then turn that land back over to the Native American tribes
- Set up a $60 million scholarship fund for Native American students
- Create a committee to investigate and oversee management of the Native American Trust Fund
Even though the settlement was approved by the court, Congress has to come up with a way to pay for it. The deadline for payment has been extended a few times, but May 31, 2010 is the last deadline. Federal lawmakers, including Senator Max Baucus of Montana, are working on a new law to beat the deadline.
Little Big Man. Dances with Wolves. Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee. Jim Thorpe. The average American has a smattering of knowledge of the history between the US government and the Native American nations and tribes, mostly gleaned from popular movies and books.
But how is the relationship today? Have things gotten better or worse, fairer or more unequal? Recent news stories shed light on the tenuous relationship.
Separate Judicial Systems Address Some Native American Issues
Many states have a tribal court system where civil and criminal matters proceed through a legal system separate from the traditional federal or state court systems. However, sometimes, there is a need to go to the main court system to decide issues.
Tribal Recognition Procedures
In November, the US Senate discussed the formal tribal recognition process used by the US government. Obtaining this recognition is important to Native American tribes. It makes economic assistance, land, housing grants, and other federal government benefits available to them.
Under current rules, the Bureau of Indian Affairs makes recognition decisions in 25 months. Some groups, however, have waited 30 years or more without a decision.
The acting deputy assistant secretary for Indian affairs agreed that new rules should be put in place. He also assured Senators that his agency would draft new regulations with deadlines for recognition petitions. He noted it could take up to a year for rules to be complete, and another year to be formally adopted.
One group frustrated by the current process is the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa, Montana. Their petition for recognition was filed in 1978. Thirty years later, the Tribe received a letter not recognizing their tribe. The group was dismayed and viewed the process as far too lengthy and uncertain.
The Class Action Suit
In December 2009, the US government announced its agreement to pay $3.4 billion to settle a class action lawsuit claiming mishandling of Native American trust funds. The suit was filed 13 years ago for more than 100,000 land trust accounts dating from the 19th century.
The dispute arose from Congress dividing many tribal lands into parcels of 40 to 160 acres in 1887. They assigned the parcels to individual Native Americans, and sold off the rest.
Currently, the US Department of the Interior manages 56 million acres of Native American trust land across the US, primarily in the West. The federal government manages leases on this land for livestock grazing and natural resources such as oil and gas drilling.
This massive lawsuit led to seven trials, 192 days of trial, 22 written and published court opinions, and ten appeals. Experts consider the landmark settlement a turning point in the relationship between the US government and Native Americans. The government has finally acknowledged the long-standing historical accounting irregularities related to the land trusts.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I am part Cherokee, am I entitled to money or property?
- How do I prove that I am of Native American heritage?
- If I can prove my heritage, am I entitled to part of the settlement?