Department Of Interior Unveils New Tribal Consultation Policy

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk have unveiled the new Tribal Consultation Policy for the Department of the Interior, designed to launch “a new era” of enhanced communication with American Indian and Alaska Native tribes.

 “This comprehensive initiative reflects President Obama’s commitment to strengthening the government-to-government relationship between the United States and tribal nations and recognizing their fundamental right to self-governance,” Secretary Salazar said in signing a Secretarial Order implementing the departmental policy. “The new framework institutionalizes meaningful consultation so that tribal leaders are at the table and engaged when it comes to the matters that affect them.”

“Under this policy, consultation will be an open, transparent and deliberative process,” said Assistant Secretary Echo Hawk. “Forging a strong role for American Indian and Alaska Native tribes at all stages in the government’s decision-making process will benefit Indian Country and federal policy for generations to come.”

Developed in coordination with tribal leaders – including meetings in seven cities with more than 300 tribal representatives – the new policy sets out detailed requirements and guidelines for Interior officials and managers to follow to ensure they are using the best practices and most innovative methods to achieve meaningful consultation with tribes.

The policy creates a framework for synchronizing Interior’s consultation practices with its bureaus and offices by providing an approach that applies in all circumstances where statutory or administrative opportunities exist to consult with the tribes - including any regulation, rulemaking, policy, guidance, legislative proposal, grant funding formula change or operational activity that may have a substantial and direct effect on a tribe.

Interior bureaus and offices, which are required to designate one or more Tribal Liaison Officers, must examine and change their consultation policies within 180 days to ensure they are consistent with the new departmental policy. Under the policy, Interior officials will identify appropriate tribal consulting parties early in the planning process, provide the tribes a meaningful opportunity to participate in the consultation process, and participate in a manner that demonstrates a commitment and ensures continuity.

A copy of the full policy can be accessed HERE.

Senate Passes Cobell Settlement Funding - House And Presidential Approval Still Pending

The United States Senate has formally approved legislation enabling the funding of the $3.4 Billion settlement in the Cobell trust litigation, an action that has been on hold for many months as Congress wrestled with health care reform and other issues.  For payments to finally begin flowing to the Native American plaintiffs in the Cobell lawsuit, the House of Representatives must also give a corresponding approval and President Obama must sign the final bill.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar praised the Senate’s action:

“With the Senate’s approval of the Cobell settlement and the four Indian water rights settlements, this is a day that will be etched in our memories and our history books. The Cobell settlement honorably and responsibly addresses long-standing injustices and is a major step forward in President Obama’s agenda of reconciliation and empowerment for Indian nations. I am also deeply proud of the passage of the four water rights settlements that will deliver clean drinking water to Indian communities, end decades of controversy and contention among neighboring communities, and provide certainty to water users across the West. The progress we have made over the last two years in reaching critical Indian country settlements is unprecedented and I am hopeful that the House will soon act to pass these settlements as well.”

Cobell Trust Lawsuit Resolved In Multi-Billion Dollar Settlement

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Attorney General Eric Holder today announced a settlement of the long-running and highly contentious Cobell class-action lawsuit regarding the U.S. government's trust management and accounting of over three hundred thousand individual American Indian trust accounts. Also speaking at the press conference today were Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes and Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli.

“This is an historic, positive development for Indian country and a major step on the road to reconciliation following years of acrimonious litigation between trust beneficiaries and the United States,” Secretary Salazar said. “Resolving this issue has been a top priority of President Obama, and this administration has worked in good faith to reach a settlement that is both honorable and responsible. This historic step will allow Interior to move forward and address the educational, law enforcement, and economic development challenges we face in Indian Country.”

“Over the past thirteen years, the parties have tried to settle this case many, many times, each time unsuccessfully," said Attorney General Eric Holder. "But today we turn the page. This settlement is fair to the plaintiffs, responsible for the United States, and provides a path forward for the future.”

Under the negotiated agreement, litigation will end regarding the Department of the Interior’s performance of an historical accounting for trust accounts maintained by the United States on behalf of more than 300,000 individual Indians. A fund totaling $1.4 billion will be distributed to class members to compensate them for their historical accounting claims, and to resolve potential claims that prior U.S. officials mismanaged the administration of trust assets.

In addition, in order to address the continued proliferation of thousands of new trust accounts caused by the "fractionation" of land interests through succeeding generations, the settlement establishes a $2 billion fund for the voluntary buy-back and consolidation of fractionated land interests. The land consolidation program will provide individual Indians with an opportunity to obtain cash payments for divided land interests and free up the land for the benefit of tribal communities.

By reducing the number of individual trust accounts that the U.S must maintain, the program will greatly reduce on-going administrative expenses and future accounting-related disputes. In order to provide owners with an additional incentive to sell their fractionated interests, the settlement authorizes the Interior Department to set aside up to 5 percent of the value of the interests into a college and vocational school scholarship fund for American Indian students.

The settlement has been negotiated with the involvement of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. It will not become final until it is formally endorsed by the court. Also, Congress must enact legislation to authorize implementation of the settlement. Because it is a settlement of a litigation matter, the Judgment Fund maintained by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Treasury will fund the settlement.

“While we have made significant progress in improving and strengthening the management of Indian trust assets, our work is not over,” said Salazar, who also announced he is establishing a national commission to evaluate ongoing trust reform efforts and make recommendations for the future management of individual trust account assets in light of a congressional sunset provision for the Office of Special Trustee, which was established by Congress in 1994 to reform financial management of the trust system.

The class action case, which involves several hundred thousand plaintiffs, was filed by Elouise Cobell in 1996 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and has included hundreds of motions, dozens of rulings and appeals, and several trials over the past 13 years. The settlement funds will be administered by the trust department of a bank approved by the district court and distributed to individual Indians by a claims administrator in accordance with court orders and the settlement agreement.

Interior currently manages about 56 million acres of Indian trust land, administering more than 100,000 leases and about $3.5 billion in trust funds. For fiscal year 2009, funds from leases, use permits, land sales and income from financial assets, totaling about $298 million were collected for more than 384,000 open Individual Indian Money accounts and $566 million was collected for about 2,700 tribal accounts for more than 250 tribes. Since 1996, the U.S. Government has collected over $10.4 billion from individual and tribal trust assets and disbursed more than $9.5 billion to individual account holders and tribal governments.

The land consolidation fund addresses a legacy of the General Allotment Act of 1887 (the “Dawes Act”), which divided tribal lands into parcels between 40 and 160 acres in size, allotted them to individual Indians and sold off all remaining unallotted Indian lands. As the original holders died, their intestate heirs received an equal, undivided interest in the lands as tenants in common. In successive generations, smaller undivided interests descended to the next generation.

Today, it is common to have hundreds—even thousands—of Indian owners for one parcel of land. Such highly fractionated ownership makes it extremely difficult to use the land productively or to provide beneficial use for any individual. Absent serious corrective action, an estimated 4 million acres of land will continue to be held in such small ownership interests that very few individual owners will ever derive any meaningful financial benefit from that ownership.

Additional Information is available at the following sites: www.cobellsettlement.com.
The Department of the Interior website: www.doi.gov. The Office of the Special Trustee website: www.ost.doi.gov
 

Accounting Ordered For Federal Trust Land Mismanagement

Eloise Cobell (Photo by Karen Kuehn)

A class-action suit regarding mismanagement of lands affecting 500,000 Native Americans recently got a boost, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has ruled in the Cobell litigation that the federal government must provide an accounting for land royalties owed to individual plaintiffs.

The lawsuit was filed 13 years ago and claims compensation for Native Americans for land-related royalties from the profits of oil, gas, grazing, and timber – commodities that were taken from Tribal lands that the government has managed in trust for Tribal members since the 19th Century. In 2008, U.S. District Judge James Robertson ruled that an accurate accounting by the Department of Interior was impossible, and awarded the group of plaintiffs $455 million, a fraction of the $47 billion+ being claimed in the lawsuit.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit disagreed with this result, and found that the lower court erred in eliminating the government accounting. Chief Judge David B. Sentelle said the decision essentially allowed the Interior Department "to throw up its hands and stop the accounting." "Without an accounting, it is impossible to know who is owed what," Sentelle wrote. "The best any trust beneficiary could hope for would be a government check in an arbitrary amount."

The D.C. Circuit panel acknowledged that the task is complicated and the Interior Department should focus on the "low-hanging fruit", dealing with clear cases where compensation is owed. "We must not allow the theoretically perfect to render impossible the achievable good," Sentelle wrote.
 

Senator Ken Salazar Selected To Lead Department of Interior

Salazar tapped as interior secretary

President–Elect Obama has selected Senator Ken Salazar, a Democrat from Colorado, to lead the U.S. Department of Interior, which includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “Among the many responsibilities Ken will bear as our next Secretary of the Interior is helping ensure that we finally live up to the treaty obligations that are owed to the first Americans,” Obama said. “We need more than just a government-to-government relationship – we need a nation-to-nation relationship, and Ken and I will work together to make sure that Tribal nations have a voice in this administration.” “I look forward to helping address the challenges faced by our Native American communities all across this nation,” Salazar said.

Salazar currently holds the Senate seat formerly occupied by Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Republican and member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. Despite being from opposing political parties, Nighthorse Campbell has endorsed Salazar’s selection to head the Department. “President-Elect Obama couldn’t have picked a better person,” Nighthorse Campbell said. “Kenny has a really strong voting record on Indian water rights, land claims, and things of that nature – he’s just a wonderful candidate. I think, very frankly, that Native America is going to be very happy with him.”

Salazar previously led Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources and worked as the state’s Attorney General. He also served on the U.S. Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee. While in the Senate, he co-sponsored numerous legislative bills focused on Native American issues, including the National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month Act, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site Trust Act, and a bill honoring Native Code Talkers.