Administration Bucks Precedent, Pays Out A Billion

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The Justice Department and 41 Native American tribes recently announced a roughly $1 billion settlement. The agreement settles long-standing disputes over whether the federal government mismanaged tribal money and resources. Host Michel Martin speaks with Rob Capriccioso of Indian Country Today Media Network.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, we want to talk about another lawsuit, one that was just settled. The Justice Department recently announced a roughly $1 billion settlement with 41 Native American tribes. The landmark agreement settles longstanding disputes over whether the federal government mismanaged tribal money and resources.

Here to tell us more about this, Rob Capriccioso. He is the Washington bureau chief for Indian Country Today Media Network. Welcome back, Rob. Thanks so much for joining us.

ROB CAPRICCIOSO: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: This is being hailed as an historic achievement, and many people who follow this a little bit will remember that there have been other lawsuits that have been recently settled over this question. Tell me why this is so important.

CAPRICCIOSO: Yeah. It's like continuing a great string of settlement victories for Native Americans under the Obama Administration. We had - starting in 2009, the Cobell Settlement was announced. That was a $3.4 billion deal that's still going through the appeals courts. And then, last year, there was the Keepseagle settlement with Native American farmers. That was $760 million. And then, of course, the Obama Administration announced the $1 billion settlement for 41 tribes.

It was just a very happy thing for these folks who have been working on these negotiations for, I guess, 22 months, with the Obama Administration.

MARTIN: So the negotiations have been going on for 22 months, but how long has the lawsuit been going on, overall?

CAPRICCIOSO: Many...

MARTIN: I mean, it's years.

CAPRICCIOSO: ...many years. Yes. The first lawsuit was filed in the mid-1990s, so it's been so long and such a hard situation to get everyone to understand. Past administrations have not wanted to go here. They were willing to fight it out in court. Even some in the Obama Administration said, doing this, what does it gain us? But there were very committed advocates within the administration who said, it's the right thing to do.

MARTIN: Tell us what the allegations were. What's the core of this dispute?

CAPRICCIOSO: Right. So the American government, the Department of Interior, holds about 56 million acres of land in trust. And, on those lands, there's mining, grazing. All kinds of activities happen that the federal government is responsible for getting the money from those activities to individuals and to tribes.

Well, there's been a breakdown in this process over the past hundred years. The money hasn't been keeping well track of within the federal government. They didn't know exactly who should get how much. It was kind of a situation where there were so many things wrong with it, that getting the exact figures of how much people were deserved has been very difficult, very hard.

MARTIN: Can you just briefly - and I understand this has been going on for so long.

CAPRICCIOSO: Right.

MARTIN: But can you just give us one example of why...

CAPRICCIOSO: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...there was this conviction there was mismanagement or, in some cases, fraud actually, at work here.

CAPRICCIOSO: So, for some of the individuals that I've interviewed over the course of these lawsuits - they've told me their grandparents would look at their bank accounts and they would know how much land supposed to have been the resources - keep track for them by the federal government - and it just wasn't adding up on that common sense basis. It was like, this doesn't seem right. There are some zeroes missing here. What's going on here? And, you know, that's...

MARTIN: So you could look at the market value of grazing rights, or you could look at the market value of mineral rights...

CAPRICCIOSO: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...and say, comparably, this doesn't work.

CAPRICCIOSO: Exactly. The federal government kind of holds all of that information, so - it wasn't like they could go somewhere and get the correct information. So it's been, like, this constant difficulty with finding out how much they're owed.

MARTIN: We're talking with Rob Capriccioso of Indian Country Today Media Network. He's been reporting on that billion dollar settlement between the Obama Administration and 41 Native American tribes. And you've reported on the fact that this kind of ongoing dispute has led to just an incredible level of acrimony between some of the tribes and the federal government. In fact, that's something that Hilary Tompkins, the solicitor general of the Interior Department, talked about at the announcement of the settlement. I'll just play that short clip.

HILARY TOMPKINS: We are at a critical moment in our history, where we can forge a new path together with shared vision and hope. And may we walk together towards a brighter future built on trust and not acrimony.

MARTIN: What about that, Rob? Has the announcement of this settlement eased some of that acrimony? What's been the reaction in Indian country?

CAPRICCIOSO: Well, I think, for some people, yes, for sure. Some people are very excited to have a president that they strongly supported, having his administration make this kind of progress that no other presidents have done for many, many years. So, for them, it's an obvious win-win situation.

Others are, you know, looking at the dollar amount. One billion is a lot of money, no doubt, but divided by 41, becomes much less money and the...

MARTIN: Forty-one tribes?

CAPRICCIOSO: Forty-one tribes. Right. And then divide that by - some of the tribes are getting far less. One tribe's getting $24,000 under the deal. Some are getting $193 million under the deal. But, for some tribal citizens, it's not a whole lot of compensation that they're going to be getting back in terms of money. So they look at the situation as - well, do we feel like the past sins have been corrected? For everyone, the answer to that question is not sure. And I don't know if one administration can make that answer resounding for sure.

MARTIN: What is the impetus? Do you know? What does your reporting suggest about why the Obama Administration has been so aggressive about settling these suits? Because, as you've indicated, there probably isn't a lot of political payoff.

CAPRICCIOSO: President Obama himself has done a great job at meeting with tribal leaders, holding a White House Tribal Nations conference three times, to date.

MARTIN: The first ever.

CAPRICCIOSO: Yeah. And he has specifically said, on this issue, that he's doing these types of rectifications because it's the right thing to do. At the same time, it's not like the administration is pushing for tons of attention. It's kind of a tricky situation for them, I think, and some Native Americans have asked, why not make a verbal apology? Obviously, you're doing something here where you'd think there's something that the federal government did that needs to be made up for in terms of financial compensation. What about the apology that could come along with that? So some have said, well, why not use this to do that greater issue?

And then others will say, well, we're getting money.

MARTIN: And to the money piece, as you've noted, that this administration has been aggressive about settling a number of longstanding legal disputes that preceded their taking office. Some of these settlements have also engendered a backlash, who say that this is reparations, or they say that it's just sort of giving money to supporters or interest groups.

Have you detected any sort of backlash around this settlement, in other corners, given that, you know, the country's still facing some sort of difficult economic circumstances.

CAPRICCIOSO: If you look in certain quarters on the Internet - yes, you will find people who bring out the reparation word as if this is reparations, or as if the past settlements announced by the administration are.

Native Americans will firmly tell you, no. It can't be a reparation when this is to pay us back for mismanagement that the federal government conducted that is on paper. You can calculate that this happened. Maybe a good job hasn't been done of calculating that so far, but they know that their bank accounts have been shortchanged all this time.

MARTIN: This is like basic contract law, as far as the recipients are concerned.

CAPRICCIOSO: As far as - yes, indeed.

MARTIN: Well, what's the next step here? Is there a next step? What's going to happen next...

CAPRICCIOSO: Yeah. Well, there are...

MARTIN: ...now that this big settlement was announced?

CAPRICCIOSO: Yeah. There are still several tribes that have these trust issues with the federal government. There are 566 federally recognized tribes. Of those, I think the last count, 87 had trust lawsuits pending and now minus 41 from that. So 46 more are remaining that would have those specific kinds of issues against the federal government ongoing. So we might see more movement from that on President Obama's front or maybe future administrations.

I don't think the trust issues are going to go away anytime. The people are still looking at that and that's still going to be a ripe field for many years to come, I think.

MARTIN: Rob Capriccioso is the Washington bureau chief for Indian Country Today Media Network. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Rob, thanks so much for joining us.

CAPRICCIOSO: Thank you.

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MARTIN: Up next, the clock is ticking to get those taxes filed. You might not be excited now, but history shows there are times people are happy to pay up.

JOSEPH THORNDIKE: During the war, taxes were pretty well tolerated. That tolerance starts to decline over the course of the war as the war wears on and as the sort of the end of the war is into sight. And, eventually, people get sort of worn out.

MARTIN: We'll tell you about the history of the American income tax. That's up next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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