Oklahoma tribes settle trust mismanagement lawsuit for $186M

Timber clear-cutting in southeastern Oklahoma, on lands that would have belonged to the Choctaw Nation had they not been allotted by the federal government. Photo by Ackerman McQueen / Choctaw Nation

Two Oklahoma tribes finalized a $186 million settlement to their trust mismanagement case on Friday, the latest in a string of deals that have brought over $5 billion to Indian Country under the Obama administration.

The Choctaw Nation will receive $139.5 million and the Chickasaw Nation will receive $46.5 million to resolve a lawsuit they filed in 2005. The tribes accused the Department of the Interior and the Department of the Treasury of mismanaging their trust assets and trust funds dating back to the early 1900s.

According to the joint stipulation that was filed in federal court by the parties, the federal government is not admitting any wrongdoing in the handling of the tribes' trust assets. One of the biggest issues in the case was the sale of more than 1.3 million acres of valuable timberland in the southeastern portion of the state. The tribes had argued that the sales occurred without their consent and in violation of the Five Civilized Tribes Act of 1906.

Still, tribal leaders hailed the settlement as a major step forward in repairing their relationship with the United States. Word of a deal first surfaced before President Barack Obama visited the Choctaw Nation in July.

President Barack Obama steps off Air Force One in Durant, Oklahoma, during his visit to the Choctaw Nation on July 15, 2015. Photo by Choctaw Nation / Facebook

“This settlement will begin the healing process for many of our tribal members," Choctaw Chief Gary Batton said on the tribe's website. "This is the first time that the federal government and tribal nations have worked on a settlement of some of these dark pages of history.”

Since January 2009, the Obama administration has settled more than 80 trust mismanagement cases. A large number were filed in December 2006, shortly before a key deadline expired because the Bush administration -- then under fire for its handling of the Cobell trust fund lawsuit -- objected to an extension that normally cleared Congress without complaints.

President Obama and his top officials have been sorting out the mess, first reaching a settlement in the Cobell case in December 2009 for $3.4 billion. That deal resulted in more than $1.4 billion in direct payments to individual tribal members across the nation. Another $1.9 billion is being spent to purchase fractionated interests from willing sellers under the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations.

In April 2012, a historic announcement at the White House saw a total of $1.023 billion for 41 tribes. More than 40 more settlements have been reached since then, including $554 million for the Navajo Nation, the largest to date.

Hilary Tompkins, Solicitor at the Interior Department, speaks at tribal trust fund settlement announcement at the White House in April 2012. Photo from Indianz / Twitter

Additionally, the Obama administration has been resolving other long-standing disputes that have hindered progress in Indian Country. A $940 million settlement for contract support costs will help tribes deliver more funds for health care, education, social service and other programs in their communities.

"We've certainly tried a lot of other approaches in the last 200 years including both assimilation of Native Americans and terminations of tribal governments," Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn, a member of the Chickasaw Nation who heads the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said earlier this month when the Ramah Navajo settlement was announced. "But experts agree that self-determination is the best one so far."

The Choctaw and Chickasaw settlement was mediated by former Judge James Robertson, who was appointed as the special master by the court. Prior to his retirement in June 2010, Robertson was in charge of the Cobell case when the settlement was reached in December 2009.

The Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes plan to use the settlement proceeds to fund programs for their members. The Choctaw Nation is the third largest in the U.S. The Chickasaw Nation is one of the largest in Oklahoma.

Relevant Documents:
Joint Stipulation | Order Approving Joint Stipulation | Choctaw Nation Resolution | Chickasaw Nation Resolution

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