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U.S. To Pay Almost $1 Billion To Settle Claims Brought By Native American Tribes

More than 600 tribes and tribal agencies had complained that for decades the government failed to provide the necessary funds for federal programs administered by tribal officials.

Posted on September 18, 2015, at 1:36 p.m. ET

Mary Hudetz / AP

Federal officials on Friday announced they had agreed to pay almost $1 billion to settle claims brought by hundreds of Native American tribes who say the government did not properly fund a number of tribal programs.

Under an agreement with the federal government, the tribes administer their own education, housing, law enforcement, and environmental management programs, among other services. But for 25 years tribes have complained that the government underfunded the programs, leading to major shortfalls.

"Deep and painful cuts were made every year," Val Panteah, governor of Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico, told reporters at a press conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Friday.

More than 600 tribes and tribal agencies took their case to the Supreme Court in 2012, where the justices ruled the government was liable for the payments.

On Friday, after years of negotiation, tribal elders and government officials speaking in Albuquerque announced they had reached a $940 million settlement, which they have submitted to federal court for final approval.

"The result is a settlement that both sides can be proud of," said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer, calling the agreement "fair and honorable to all the parties involved."

Officials said the funding gaps were the result of caps placed by Congress on the funds appropriated to pay for the costs of the Native American programs.

"We started gaining control of our own destiny. But the federal government found a way to undermine us on this process too" Panteah said. "The [Bureau of Indian Affairs] blamed Congress. Congress blamed the president. And we were stuck in the middle."

Officials said the settlement represented an effort by the Obama administration to "turn the page" in relations between the government and tribes.

"Tribal self-determination and self-governance will continue to be our North Star as we navigate a new chapter in this important relationship and we are committed to fully funding contract support costs so that tribal contracting can be more successful," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said.

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