Government settles century-old tribal claims for $1 billion

Interior's Ken Salazar testified before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing on the Cobell v. Salazar lawsuit. Interior's Ken Salazar testified before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing on the Cobell v. Salazar lawsuit. Evan Vucci/AP

The federal government has agreed to pay more than $1 billion to settle lawsuits filed by 41 tribes alleging mismanagement of money and natural resources held in trust, the Interior and Justice departments announced Thursday.

The agreement resolves century-old disputes and ends years of protracted litigation. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the $1.023 billion deal “strengthens the government-to-government relationship with tribal nations, helps restore a positive working relationship with Indian country leaders and empowers American Indian communities.”

Interior manages nearly 56 million acres of tribal land, including more than 100,000 leases for housing, timber harvesting, farming, grazing, oil and gas extraction, and other uses, according to a press release. The department also manages some 2,500 tribal trust accounts.

Tribes suing over mismanagement of the trust land and accounts began requesting expedited settlement discussions in 2009.

The government won final approval in 2011 for a $3.4 billion settlement of an unrelated class action lawsuit, Cobell v. Salazar, which also alleged Interior mismanaged tribal land and assets. But that suit was brought by individuals, not tribes.

Attorney General Eric Holder said the deal announced Thursday resolves claims that “for far too long have been a source of conflict between Indian tribes and the United States.” He said the settlements fairly and honorably address the tribes’ historical grievances.

The tribes will be compensated from the congressionally appropriated Judgment Fund -- which pays settlements against the U.S. government -- and have agreed to dismiss and not relodge their claims, the Interior release said.

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