Federal $1 billion settlement attempts new direction with tribes

Some Minnesota Native American tribes will benefit from a $1 billion settlement with the federal government.

The agreement was announced Wednesday and addresses mismanagement by the federal government of Native American trust accounts. It also signals a new direction in the way federal agencies work in Indian country.

Minnesota's Chippewa Tribe will receive just under $2 million of the settlement.

Gary Frazer, the tribe's executive director, said "The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe got very little of that. In fact tribes in the Midwest got very little of that compared to the tribes out West."

The Leech Lake band of Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe will receive a separate payment of $3.5 million as part of the same settlement.

It is unclear how much of the settlement will be paid to the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.

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The payouts to tribes across the country differ based on how much money the federal government managed in trust for each tribe. Frazer said tribes with gas and oil production on their land get a larger portion of the settlement money because they held larger trusts that were poorly managed.

Frazer is unsure how the tribe will use its share of the settlement.

"It could stay with the tribe, or it could be divided amongst the six bands," Frazer said. "And it could be used for a revolving loan fund."

The Native American Rights Fund provided Minnesota's tribe and bands with legal representation during the settlement.

John Echohawk, an attorney who heads up the fund, said the federal government is essentially the trustee for Indian lands, meaning the government has to sign off on any activities — logging or mining, for example — that take place on tribal lands.

"The funds from those activities are collected by the federal government and go into trust accounts that are administered by the federal government. So it's like the government's our bank for these trust accounts," Echohawk said.

"And as a trustee they're suppose to keep track of all this money and report out to the individual Indians and the tribes about those funds."

Echohawk said the settlement is an attempt by the federal government to clean the slate with tribes across the country. The agreement resolves claims in some cases dating back more than 100 years.

"It means the long-standing claims that tribes have had against the federal government for mismanagement of their tribal trust fund has been settled, finally," he said.

In all, 41 tribes in the U.S. will receive payments. This agreement follows a $3.4 billion settlement last June for a class-action lawsuit known as the Cobell case. The payouts in that case, which would go directly to individuals, have been stalled by a lawsuit.

Despite this week's billion-dollar settlement, there are still roughly 60 unresolved cases between the government and tribes.

Years of litigation have brought change, said Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes.

"What we're focused on now is making sure that we never have a repeat of these problems," Hayes said.

New accounting systems are in place to better manage the trust accounts, Hayes said. There is also an independent commission made up of five prominent American Indians to advise the agency in the future.