U.S. reaches historic agreements with 41 Indian tribes

Tuesday - 4/24/2012, 10:47am EDT

Tony West, acting associate attorney general

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The Justice Department has resolved some long-standing cases with American Indian tribes. Forty-one tribes nationwide had brought some 72 separate lawsuits, some of which date back more than a century. Now, they've agreed to settle for $1 billion.

"It's a significant settlement because it helps us to write a new chapter in the government-to-government relationship the United States enjoys with Indian tribes," said Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West.

He told The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp the cases involved a number of claims about the way the U.S. was managing property and money that it was holding in trust for Indian tribes across the country.

"These cases have been going on for a long, long time," West said. "We were able to, after a lot of hard work and a lot of important negotiations, come to an agreement, whereby 41 of these tribes have settled these claims"

Called trust mismanagement or trust accounting claims, the cases focused on the United States failing to meet its obligation to invest in tribal trust funds. In addition, the U.S. was accused of not fully collecting revenues due from leases on tribal lands and failing to show how much money was supposed to go to particular trust accounts.

Tony West, acting associate attorney general (DoJ)

"We've come to an agreement that Indian tribes in most cases will release those claims against the United States and we will move forward with a renewed commitment to the trust responsibilities that the United States has toward Indian tribes," West said.

With commitments from tribal leaders and folks at the departments of the Interior, Treasury and Justice, it was an ideal time to negotiate the agreements.

"The Obama administration's commitment to reconciliation and resolution of historic injustices has really been something that's been a high priority for the last three years," West said.

From the signing of the Tribal Law and Order Act to the assignment of additional FBI agents and federal prosecutors to tribal lands, the administration has demonstrated in recent years a commitment to renew government-to-government relations between the U.S. and the tribes.

"Tribal leaders saw that opportunity and, in fact, in 2010, a number of them wrote a letter to President Obama inviting the Obama administration to engage in settlement negotiations to try to resolve these long-standing cases," West said.

Although the settlement of 41 long-standing cases is viewed as a huge accomplishment, Justice's work is far from done. The department is still negotiating with 71 tribes who have brought 54 cases.

"We continue to engage in settlement negotiations with them," West said. "Some of those cases are in active litigation. We very much hope that we can meet fair and reasonable settlements in all of those cases."