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The Oklahoman: Cherokee Nation would be top Oklahoma recipient under federal settlement with tribes

September 17, 2015
News Stories

The Oklahoman- Chris Casteel

The Obama administration has proposed to pay Indian tribes nearly $1 billion to settle a long-running lawsuit alleging the government failed to pay the costs of running federal programs.

The $940 million settlement, filed in federal court in New Mexico, was announced by top officials at the Interior and Justice departments on Thursday.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said there is a good chance it could be resolved by all parties next year. If some of the tribes challenge the settlement, she said, it could take months or even years to finalize the payouts to more than 640 tribes and tribal organizations that had contracts with the U.S. government between 1994 and 2013.

Documents filed in the case detail the share each tribe would receive if the settlement is ultimately approved. The shares are in percentages of the total, which will be reduced from the $940 million by attorneys' fees and other costs.

The breakdown shows the Cherokee Nation would get the largest share of the Oklahoma tribes, nearly 1 percent of the total.

If the federal district court approves the settlement, the Cherokee Nation could receive about $8 million, according to Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree.

Other proposed payouts for Oklahoma tribes include: Muscogee Creek Nation, 0.47 percent; Choctaw Nation, 0.42 percent; Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes, 0.38 percent; and the Chickasaw Nation, 0.36 percent.

U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, a member of the Chickasaw Nation and an influential voice in Congress on Indian issues, said, “This is good news for the historically battered relationship between Indian Country and the federal government. By reimbursing tribes who were short-changed in the past and ensuring proper compensation for those same contracts in the future, it symbolizes a United States that stays true to its word and fully honors the promises made to Native Americans.”

The original suit was filed in New Mexico by the Ramah Navajo Chapter in 1990 and was later joined by the Oglala Sioux and the Pueblo of Zuni. The suit alleged the federal government — which was contracting with the tribes to run federal programs for tribal members — was short-changing the tribes on the contract costs.

Kevin Washburn, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, told reporters Thursday that they were mostly the "mundane costs" associated with running programs. For instance, he said, the government might have covered the salaries of workers in a program, but not associated costs such as workers' compensation insurance.

According to attorneys for the tribes who brought the suit, this would be the fourth and final settlement in the case, with the first two involving contracts between 1989 and 1993 and another directing system reforms.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 held the government liable for underpayments in and after 1994 and ruled that insufficient funding from Congress wasn't an excuse for underpaying the tribes, the attorneys in the case said.

Jewell, the Interior secretary, told reporters Thursday that the settlement was another attempt by the administration to settle past grievances with Indian tribes. The Obama administration settled the long-running and acrimonious suit over individual Indian trust accounts.

The new settlement won't have to be approved by Congress, and it will come from a fund administered by the Treasury Department, officials said.

Online: The Oklahoman