The U.S. government will pay $492 million to 17 American Indian tribes to settle lawsuits over the mismanagement of natural resources and other tribal assets, NPR reports.
The U.S. says that there are more than 100 lawsuits totaling $3.3 billion that have been brought against the federal government by American Indian individuals and tribes, some of which date back more than a century.
During his 2008 campaign, President Barack Obama made a promise on the campaign trail to institute an Indian policy that “starts with honoring the unique government-to-government relationship, and ensuring treaty responsibilities are met.”
"Settling these long-standing disputes reflects the Obama Administration's continued commitment to reconciliation and empowerment for Indian Country," Sally Jewel, secretary of the interior, said in a joint statement released by the departments of Justice and Interior.
According to NPR, as part of treaty agreements dating back to the 1800s, the Department of Interior manages 56 million acres of land on behalf of more than 250 tribes, and handles at least 100,000 leases on that land for a variety of uses, including housing, farming, and oil and gas extraction.
As the trustee of the tribal land, the U.S. government must make sure that tribes receive “just compensation” for the use of their land, but Melody McCoy, a staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund who handled 13 of the 17 settlements, told NPR that has not always happened.
"The U.S. government would say it held the assets in trusts benevolently, for the protection of Indian lands and money," McCoy said. "The flip side of that is that in exchange, the government was supposed to be a good trustee, and it wasn't. Land was not managed well. Money and resources were not managed well."
Native Americans allegedly lost decades of income as a result.
McCoy said that since Obama took office, there have been 95 total settlements with tribes and there are 11 more in active negotiation. McCoy said that is quite an accomplishment.