Inter Tribal Council of Arizona files trust mismanagement case

A building on the Phoenix Indian School property in Phoenix, Arizona. About 100 acres of the 160-acre campus was transferred to a wealthy family as part of a land exchange with the federal government. Photo by Tony the Marine / Wikipedia

The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona is suing the federal government over the mismanagement of a trust fund that was intended to benefit Indian education.

The Arizona-Florida Land Exchange Act of 1988 authorized a land exchange between the federal government and a group of corporations controlled by a wealthy family. As part of the deal, the Colliers were required to pay $34.9 million into a trust fund in exchange for receiving about 100 acres from the old Phoenix Indian School.

Of that amount, $33.2 million was set aside for the 21 member tribes of ITCA in the form of the Arizona Inter Tribal Trust Fund. The remainder was directed to the Navajo Nation.

The ITCA tribes have benefited from $2 million in annual payments from the trust, which is set to last for 30 years. At the end of that period, the fund is due to receive the entire $33.2 million.

However, the Collier family stopped making payments to the trust in 2011. That has left the fund well short of the $34.2 million that was originally promised to the tribes 27 years ago.

"The trust fund has provided a vitally needed source of funding for K-12 education and child welfare services for tribes in Arizona," Thomas Beauty, the chairman of the Yavapai-Apache Nation who serves as president of ITCA, said in a press release. "The loss of this funding source will have a real impact on Indian education across the state."

The federal government sued the Colliers in federal court in Arizona in 2014 in hopes of resolving the payment dispute. The tribes hope their suit, which was filed in the Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C., achieves a much larger goal.

"The United States has an obligation to collect not only the $34.9 million it originally loaned to Collier to fund the land exchange, but also the 15 years remaining annual interest payments that are so desperately needed for Indian education in Arizona," Beauty said. "The United States' suit against the Collier does not appear to address these funds."

The Phoenix Indian School was an off-reservation institution that was established in 1891. The Bureau of Indian Affairs closed it in 1990 so the fund was intended as way for the government to fulfill its promise to continue providing education for tribal members in Arizona.

The campus was 160 acres so the Colliers received the majority of the land under the 1988 swap. The remainder serves as the Steele Indian School Park for the city of Phoenix.

The Native American Rights Fund is representing ITCA in the case.

Join the Conversation