Colville Tribes’ land suit settled

Portion of $193 million from federal government will go to forest restoration

February 25, 2012

The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation have agreed to accept a $193 million settlement offer from the federal government for decades of mismanagement of tribal trust funds and income-generating assets.

The settlement ranks among the largest payouts for Indian trust-mismanagement cases in U.S. history, according to Michael Finley, chairman of the Colville Tribes’ business council. The U.S. Department of Justice is expected to approve the settlement within the next two weeks, according to a news release from the tribe.

In 2005, the Colville Tribes sued the federal government, alleging mismanagement of payments from timber sales, agriculture and grazing leases and mining claims on tribal trust lands. The income was supposed to be invested on behalf of the Colville Tribes, but the tribe never received an accounting of the money, the suit said.

The Colville Tribes’ lawsuit parallels Cobell v. Norton, which alleged that Native American families were denied billions of dollars in royalties over the past century. That class-action suit, filed by a Blackfeet woman named Elouise Cobell in 1996, revealed massive and longstanding problems with federal oversight of Indian trust funds. The Cobell case, however, deals with payments to individual tribal members, not lands held in trust for the tribes.

Finley could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon but issued a statement:

“The council is pleased that the United States stepped forward to compensate the Colville Tribes for losses suffered through its mismanagement of our resources. It’s gratifying to know that the federal government, specifically this administration, is willing to repay (the) tribes, at least in part, for the damages we’ve suffered to resolve these longstanding claims.”

Some of the Colville Tribes’ settlement will be used to restore tribal forests and rangeland on the 1.4 million-acre reservation, according to the release. A portion of the settlement will be distributed to the tribes’ 9,000-plus members through ongoing per-capita payments.

The tribes’ council, members and employees are meeting to develop a long-term plan for using the money.

During the 1990s, the federal government hired accounting firm Arthur Anderson to try to reconcile discrepancies in the Colville Tribes’ trust fund accounts from 1972 to 1992, but tribal officials did not accept its report.

The Colville Tribes arrived at the $193 million settlement with the government by demonstrating “how mismanagement of Colville Tribes’ natural resources resulted in significant monetary damages,” the news release said.

The Colville Tribes’ lawsuit is one of several dozen tribal trust suits that have been pending in federal court.

Other tribes are expected to announce settlements in the near future.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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