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The Rise of Tribes and the Fall of Federal Indian Law
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Arizona tribe settles trust mismanagement case
Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Two years after securing a major victory before the U.S. Supreme Court, the White Mountain Apache Tribe of Arizona has settled its trust mismanagement case with the federal government.

Under an agreement announced this month, the tribe will receive $12 million to repair, rehabilitate and maintain the historic Fort Apache, a 134-year-old site made famous by Hollywood. "The post has stood as an enduring symbol of the history of the Old West for the tribe and the rest of the world," White Mountain Apache Chairman Dallas Massey Sr. said.

But the 7,500-acre fort is in disrepair due to decades of government neglect. Several buildings are falling apart and the Bureau of Indian Affairs school located on the grounds is in desperate need of repairs.

The tribe hopes to turn things around and ensure the site is preserved for future generations, an idea that has been embraced by the tribal community. "With the settlement, the tribe can now protect and preserve the fort, and establish it as one of Arizona's finest tourist destinations," Massey said.

Established in 1877, the fort has a long and storied history. It was home to a diverse group of soldiers throughout the 1800s and early 1900s and served as the inspiration for several Western films and the television show "Rin Tin Tin."

The U.S. Army retired the fort in 1922, handing control to the Interior Department, and a year later, Congress authorized the establishment of the Theodore Roosevelt School. Things went downhill from here, according to tribal representatives.

In 1960, Congress directed that the fort be held in trust for the tribe "subject" to Interior's use. Despite this law, the BIA refused to maintain the site as a trust property, prompting the legal battle that ended up before the Supreme Court.

The Bush administration argued that the law was too vague and didn't impose any standards to manage the property. At one point, a Department of Justice attorney said the government could blow up the fort without recrimination.

In March 2003, the high court settled the matter once and for all. In a 5-4 ruling, the justices rejected the Bush administration's defense and said the U.S. was liable for letting the fort fall into waste in violation of the common law duties of a trustee.

Even though it lost the case, the administration has continued to challenge the extent of its trust duties to tribes and individual Indians. Interior Secretary Gale Norton and her attorneys have been fighting several trust mismanagement cases although most of the rulings have gone against them.

Meanwhile, the White Mountain Apache Tribe plans to showcase its culture and the history of the fort in what is known as the Fort Apache Historic District, a 288-acre site on the National Register of Historic Places. Upward of 30 buildings, including some belonging to the school, are in need of refurbishment.

Timeline of Events:
1871 - Fort Apache Reservation established by executive order of President Ulysses S. Grant.
1877 - Fort Apache Military Reservation created by executive order within reservation boundaries. Fort is approximately 7,500 acres.
1922 - Fort retired, Theodore Roosevelt School established.
1960 - Congress passes law holding fort in trust for tribe "subject to the right of the Secretary of the Interior to use any part of the land and improvements for administrative or school purposes."
1976 - About 288 acres of the site, including the school, are put on the National Register of Historic Places.
March 1999 - Tribe files $14 million suit to repair buildings.
November 1999 - Federal court dismisses claim based on government claim of no trust duty.
May 2001 - Federal appeals court reverses in 2-1 decision, orders lower court to resolve outstanding issues.
January 2002 - Bush administration files appeal.
May 2002 - Supreme Court grants petition for writ of certiorari.
December 2002 - Supreme Court hears oral arguments.
March 2003 - Supreme Court rules 5-4 in favor of tribe. May 2004 - Settlement of $12 million announced.

Supreme Court Decision:
Syllabus | Opinion [Souter] | Concurrence [Ginsburg] | Dissent [Thomas]

Relevant Links:
White Mountain Apache Tribe - http://www.wmat.nsn.us

Related Stories:
Trial testimony focuses on trust standards (06/03)
Ariz. congressman to visit historic Apache fort (04/23)
Ore. tribes await outcome of trust fund case (04/17)
Reach of Supreme Court's trust rulings debated (04/14)
Indian Country takes on trust relationship debate (04/08)
Tribal official recalls battle to protect Ariz. fort (04/02)
Supreme Court panel's predictions mostly came true (03/19)
Supreme Court upholds common law trust claim (3/5)
Supreme Court issues trust decisions (3/4)
Panel predicts Apache victory (12/4)
U.S. pressed on trust duties (12/3)
Supreme Court takes on trust (12/2)
Review disputes 'costly' Indian trust litigation (10/21)
U.S. argues limits as trustee (8/9)
Griles slammed for ignorance (7/12)
Griles can't explain trust standards (6/27)
Court to decide limits of trust duty (4/23)
Supreme Court taking on trust (4/22)
Leave no Apache school behind (3/29)
Apache Tribe wins trust case appeal (5/17)

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