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Obama settles long-running tribal contract support costs cases

A view of the Ramah Navajo Chapter in New Mexico. Photo from Facebook

Update: The case has been settled for $940 million. “This landmark settlement represents another important step in the Obama Administration’s efforts to turn the page on past challenges in our government-to-government relationship with tribes,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a press release.

Ramah Navajo Chapter | Oglala Sioux Tribe | Zuni Pueblo | Attorneys | Q&A

The Obama administration is announcing a settlement in a major self-determination dispute.

In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service must fully fund self-determination contracts. This includes the amount needed to run the program plus additional contract support costs.

Since the decision, the administration has resolved a number of individual disputes with tribes and tribal entities. The IHS alone paid $705.5 million on 947 contract support costs claims as of May 2015.

Now, a "landmark settlement" has been reached in a class action lawsuit affecting even more claims. The leaders of the three named plaintiffs -- the Ramah Navajo Chapter, Zuni Pueblo and the Oglala Sioux Tribe -- will be joined by federal officials and attorneys in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the announcement today.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Salazar v. Ramah Navajo Chapter

The settlement comes after years of negotiations that picked up in recent months, according to documents posted on the website of the Ramah Navajo Chapter Class Action Settlement. Leaders of the three tribes, along with Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn, the head of the BIA, have been in discussions with the Department of Justice to resolve the matter.

It also comes as the Supreme Court is taking yet another look at contract support costs. Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin v. US -- which affects just one tribe, the Menominee Nation of Wisconsin -- will be heard this year, marking the third time in a decade that that the issue has come before the justices.

Amid the uncertainty, the BIA and the IHS budgets for fiscal year 2015 and fiscal year 2016 have included full support for contract support costs. The administration also has asked Congress to start treating contract support costs as "mandatory" starting in fiscal year 2017, a move that would protect Indian Country from shifts in the federal budget.

President David Jose of the Ramah Navajo Chapter, President John Yellowbird Steele of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and Governor Val R. Panteah Sr. of Zuni Pueblo are due to appear at the announcement today along with Washburn, U.S. Attorney for New Mexico Damon Martinez and Benjamin C. Mizer of the Department of Justice.

DC Circuit Decision:
Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin v. USA (September 2, 2014)

Federal Circuit Decision:
Arctic Slope Native Association v. Sebelius (November 9, 2012)

Supreme Court Decisions:
Salazar v. Ramah Navajo Chapter (June 18, 2012)
Cherokee Nation v. Leavitt (March 1, 2005)

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