Battle brews anew over case of Indian money

Federal judge to hear arguments about $380M left over from USDA discrimination settlement.

By Jonathan Ellis, Argus Leader

A federal judge Monday will hear opinions on what to do with $380 million left over from a settlement that was meant to reimburse Native Americans who were discriminated against by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

District Judge Emmet Sullivan has received hundreds of comments, most of them from Native Americans who argue the money should be distributed in another round of payments — a move that the federal government opposes.

The money is left over from a 2011 settlement with the USDA. In 1999, a group of Native Americans sued the government, arguing that USDA discriminated against Native American farmers and ranchers who sought loans from the department. USDA paid $680 million and another $80 million in debt relief to settle Keepseagle v. Vilsack, a similar move the department made to settle other lawsuits brought by minority groups.

The settlement established a claims process for Native Americans who alleged discrimination, and it included a provision that any leftover money would be distributed to nonprofit groups that help Native American farmers and ranchers.

At the time, the parties figured about $1 million would be left over once the claims were processed, said Joseph Sellers, the class counsel. But in the end, there were only about 3,600 successful claimants — far fewer than originally estimated.

“We realized we were going to have a lot more money left over,” Sellers said.

Some of the claimants who received payments wanted another round of disbursements. But the federal government opposed another round of payments because officials did not want Native American farmers and ranchers to receive more money than what blacks, Hispanics and other minorities received in their settlements, Sellers said.

Gwen Sparks, a USDA spokeswoman, declined to comment.

After negotiations, the government agreed to allow the remaining money to be put into a trust. If approved, 10 percent would be distributed to nonprofits by an advisory board, and the remaining 90 percent would be distributed during the next 20 years by a foundation to nonprofits that help Indian ranchers and farmers.

Absent the agreement, the federal government could have demanded that the remaining money be returned, Sellers said.

But the agreement is deeply unpopular with many of the Native Americans who received payments. They argue that, as victims of discrimination, they should receive the leftover money.

In a motion filed last month, Marilyn Keepseagle, one of the original class litigants, said that the victims of discrimination were Native American farmers and ranchers, not the charitable organizations that would get the money. Keepseagle proposed that the money either be paid out to the 3,600 successful claimants, or that another claims period be opened for Native Americans who did not file a claim the first time.

“The ends of justice demand that this money should be distributed to the class members instead of providing a historic and unwarranted payout for charitable organizations,” Keepseagle said in her motion.

Marshall Matz, a lawyer representing Keepseagle and other Native Americans who want another disbursement, said a legal question persists regarding who owns the leftover $380 million.

“It’s a fascinating legal question,” he said.

Matz predicted that whatever happens, an appeal is likely.

“I don’t know why you would need a foundation — to create a foundation — to do unspecified good things when you can give the money to the people who can prove they were damaged,” Matz said.

Largest Settlement a Turning Point in US-Navajo Nation Relations

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly (L) puts a blanket on the shoulders of U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell after a ceremonial signing of a record multi-million-dollar settlement, in Window Rock, Arizona, at the Navajo Nation, Sept. 26, 2014.

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly (L) puts a blanket on the shoulders of U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell after a ceremonial signing of a record multi-million-dollar settlement, in Window Rock, Arizona, at the Navajo Nation, Sept. 26, 2014.

By Isabela Cocoli, Voice of America News
WASHINGTON—A record multi-million-dollar settlement between the United States government and the Navajo Nation has been seen as a turning point in relations between the Federal government and the entire Indian nation. It is the largest sum ever paid by the U.S. government to a single Indian tribe.Within the territory of the United States are 562 nations — ethnically-, culturally- and linguistically-diverse Native American tribes recognized by the United States as sovereign governments. The largest is the Navajo Nation, whose territory stretches more than 70,000 square kilometers across three western states.While the tribal governments enforce laws on their territory and license and regulate activities, the federal government holds the vast majority of Indian lands, money and resources in trust for the tribes, and is required to manage them in a way that benefits the tribes and individual Native Americans.

The Navajo Nation sued the federal government in 2006 and sought $900 million in damages for mismanagement of resources and trust accounts since at least 1946.

Significant investment needed

The claims in the case involved essentially three things: one, the Federal government as trustee was responsible for negotiating a contract for the extraction of natural resources for the Navajo Nation’s property; two, the government was responsible for monitoring the performance under the contract to make sure that the Navajo Nation was paid the royalties due; and three, as trustee the United States was obligated to invest the proceeds in a commercially appropriate way.

Andrew Sandler, who represented the Navajo Nation in the suit, said the settlement for $554 million is an equitable deal for both parties. It comes at a time when the Navajo Nation needs significant investment in several areas — from education to housing — and he said it will go a long way toward addressing those needs.

“The Navajo Nation is plagued by an unemployment rate as high as 50 percent. It is in desperate need for educational resources, for infrastructure resources, for roads, for water, and many other things,” said Sandler. “This $500-plus million will go a long, long way to improving the quality of life for the Navajo people.”

The signing ceremony took place late last month in Window Rock, Arizona, which serves as the capital of the Navajo Nation. Navajo official Rick Abasta told VOA that there were compromises on both sides.

“There was a little bit of compromise on the Nation’s part in accepting this $554 million settlement. But I think the bigger picture was to end the litigation against the federal government, because of course that has a cost as well, and move forward with improving the Nation and utilizing these funds,” he said.

Aiding tribal communities

In various public statements, U.S. officials had acknowledged that the Federal government had failed in its obligation as trustee. However, the deal reflects Washington’s commitment to upholding its trust responsibility to Indian Country and to building strong, prosperous and resilient tribal communities.

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly said the agreement was symbolic of the evolving relationship between the Navajo Nation and the U.S. government.

“The $554 million represented in this settlement is more than just the end of a legal battle. It is not just fulfilling the trust responsibility of our trustee, nor is it full compensation for the loss of revenue and the harm caused by the federal government’s actions over decades,” he said. “This settlement marks a turning point in our relationship with the federal government, and I’m hoping to see that before Obama leaves.”

U.S. tribes have filed more than 100 lawsuits against the federal government. Since early 2012, the government has resolved about 80 of them, amounting to $2.5 billion.

U.S. settlement with Navajo Nation is largest ever for a tribe

The Navajo Nation will receive $554 million from the U.S. to settle claims of mismanaged funds. Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, left, talks with tribal presidential candidate Kenneth Maryboy this year. (Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

The Navajo Nation will receive $554 million from the U.S. to settle claims of mismanaged funds. Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, left, talks with tribal presidential candidate Kenneth Maryboy this year. (Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

By Cindy Carcamo, Los Angeles Times

In a historic settlement, the federal government will pay the Navajo Nation more than half a billion dollars to settle claims that it mismanaged reservation funds for more than 60 years, the tribe and the government announced Wednesday.

At $554 million, the settlement is the largest obtained by a single American Indian tribe against the U.S. It caps a drawn-out dispute filed in 2006 with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

The settlement goes a long way toward repairing some of the “wrongs that have been done against the Navajo people,” said Rick Abasta, a spokesman for the Navajo Nation.

But it also serves a more practical purpose, he said.

“It’s a great opportunity to address some of the disparities that exist in the [Navajo] Nation,” he said. “This $554 million is like a much-needed cash infusion for the nation.”

The Navajo Nation is the largest Native American tribe, with more than 300,000 members and a reservation that spans 27,000 square miles in three states, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. But some tribal members who live in remote areas lack modern amenities — even electricity and running water.

“This landmark resolution ends protracted and burdensome litigation. It will provide important resources to the Navajo Nation. And it fairly and honorably resolves a legal conflict over the accounting and management of tribal resources,” U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement.

Abasta said Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly planned to hold a series of town hall meetings to hear from tribal members as to what should be done with the money.

The lawsuit alleged that from 1946 to 2012, the U.S. government, which served as trustee for the tribe’s natural resources, did not negotiate appropriate deals with entities that were extracting natural resources such as coal, uranium, oil and gas from the Navajo reservation.

In addition, the tribe contended that the U.S. did not properly monitor royalties to ensure that the tribe was appropriately paid. It also contended that the U.S. did not properly invest the proceeds to ensure that the tribe would receive an appropriate return on its money.

The lawsuit, which sought $900 million, did not go to trial. Instead the Obama administration decided to settle out of court, said Andrew L. Sandler, who represented the tribe with partner Samuel J. Buffone.

“There was a lot of government misconduct for a very long time, but the Obama administration and Justice Department stepped up and did the right thing in this case,” Sandler said.

The settlement was negotiated in June and finalized by senior Navajo and U.S. officials in early August, Sandler said. The U.S. has agreed to pay the settlement in the next 30 to 60 days.

About 100 similar cases have been filed by other tribes, Sandler said; many have been settled, but a few remain in litigation. The second-largest single settlement was for $380 million, with the Osage tribe in Oklahoma. The 2011 deal ended 11 years of litigation over claims of mismanagement of tribal assets.

The Navajo Nation plans to host a signing ceremony in Window Rock, Ariz., where administration officials will join tribal members to complete the settlement Friday.

“The trust litigation has been a protracted battle and, in the end, it was a victory for tribal sovereignty,” Shelly, the Navajo Nation president, said in a statement. “After a long, hard-won process, I am pleased that we have finally come to a resolution on this matter to receive fair and just compensation for Navajo Nation.”

U.S. to pay Navajo Nation $554 million in largest settlement with single Indian tribe

 

By Sari Horwitz September 24, Washington Post

In the largest settlement with a single American Indian tribe, the Obama administration will pay the Navajo Nation $554 million to settle claims that the U.S. government has mismanaged funds and natural resources on the Navajo reservation for decades.

The settlement, to be signed in Window Rock, Ariz., on Friday, resolves a long-standing dispute between the Navajo Nation and the U.S. government, with some of the claims dating back more than 50 years.

The sprawling Navajo reservation, located in parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, is the largest and most populous Indian reservation, with 14 million acres of trust lands, which are leased for farming, grazing and oil, gas and other mineral extraction. The land is also leased for businesses, rights-of-way, easements and housing.

“This landmark resolution ends protracted and burdensome litigation,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement provided to The Washington Post on Wednesday. “This demonstrates the Justice Department’s firm commitment to strengthening our partnerships with tribal nations.”

Under the agreement, the Navajo Nation will dismiss its current lawsuit and forego further litigation against the U.S. government for its historic management and accounting of Navajo funds and resources held in trust by the government.

“The Navajo Nation has worked tirelessly for many years to bring this issue to a close,” said Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation. “After a long, hard-won process, I am pleased that we have finally come to a resolution on this matter to receive fair and just compensation for the Navajo Nation.” Shelly said the tribe will host town hall meetings across the Navajo Nation to decide on how the funds can be used or invested.

Members of the Navajo Nation Council, the legislative branch of the Navajo Nation, said that the agreement doesn’t affect the tribe’s existing or potential claims regarding water and uranium pollution.

“It is very important for the Navajo people to understand that this agreement only addresses historical trust claims and does not prohibit or hinder our Nation from pursuing claims with respect to future conduct,” said Lorenzo Curley, the chairman of the council, who was involved in the negotiations with the Obama administration.

While the settlement marks the largest ever with one tribe, the Obama administration has made several other multimillion-dollar agreements with tribes since 2009 to settle long-standing grievances by Native Americans.

Along with the Navajo Nation, the administration has negotiated settlements resulting in a total of $2.61 billion paid to 80 tribes since 2010 for tribal trust accounting and trust management claims. The Interior Department manages almost 56 million acres of trust lands for federally recognized tribes and more than 100,000 leases on those lands. The department also manages about 2,500 tribal trust accounts for more than 250 tribes.

In the fall of 2009, attorneys for many of the tribes with litigation pending against the U.S. government wrote to President Obama and asked his administration to expedite settlement discussions. In April 2010, Obama administration officials, including then-Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli, met with the attorneys and started a settlement process.

“From his first days in office, President Obama has worked to honor the government-to-government relationships between the United States and tribal governments,” said Sam Hirsch, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, a key member of the department’s Indian country team. “It reflects my personal commitment to resolving long-standing lawsuits rather than wasting the time and resources of both the United States and Indian tribes in contentious litigation.”

In 2011, the administration agreed to pay $380 million to settle a long-running lawsuit by the Osage Tribe of Oklahoma regarding the government’s accounting and management of the tribe’s trust accounts, trust lands and other natural resources.

The next year, Holder and then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a $1 billion settlement of lawsuits filed by 41 federally recognized tribes across the country with claims dating back 100 years.

In addition, the Obama administration in 2009 settled the highly contentious Cobell class-action lawsuit regarding the government’s trust management and accounting of over 3,000 individual American Indian trust accounts. The lawsuit, which involved several hundred thousand plaintiffs, was filed by Elouise Cobell in 1996 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and included hundreds of motions, dozens of rulings and appeals, and several trials over 13 years.

“The landmark Cobell settlement and resolution of 80 other tribal trust management lawsuits under President Obama has opened a new chapter in federal trust relations with tribes and individual Indian beneficiaries,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said.

Tribal court to hear complaint over US settlement

Source: Native American Times

NESPELEM, Wash. (AP) – A tribal court will hear a civil complaint Wednesday claiming the Colville Confederated Tribes should have distributed to tribal members all of a $193 million settlement with the U.S. government.

The Wenatchee World reports that tribal member Yvonne L. Swan filed the complaint in May on behalf of herself and 2,700 tribal members who had petitioned to have the entire settlement distributed to tribal members.

The money is part of a $1 billion settlement from the U.S. government with American Indian tribes whose trust lands were mismanaged by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The tribe’s Business Council pledged to spend half of the settlement on senior centers, health clinics, and other programs. The council distributed the rest in two separate payments, giving about $10,000 to each of about 9,500 members.

Navajo, Urban Outfitters fail to reach settlement

Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Navajo Nation and Urban Outfitters have failed to reach a settlement in a federal lawsuit alleging trademark violations.

The tribe sued the clothing retailer and its subsidiaries last year to keep them from using the “Navajo” name or variations of it on their products.

U.S. District Judge Lorenzo Garcia in New Mexico had thrown out all deadlines for discovery and responses to motions while settlement discussions took place. The parties wrote to the court this week saying that mediation has been unsuccessful.

The parties say no other mediation sessions are planned.

Urban Outfitters argues that “Navajo” is a generic term for a style or design and has asserted counter claims. It is seeking a declaration of non-infringement and cancellation of the tribe’s federal trademark registrations.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/08/02/3538199/navajo-urban-outfitters-fail-to.html#storylink=cpy