Fort Peck tribes OK $75 million settlement in lawsuit against Interior | Great Falls Tribune

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Fort Peck tribes OK $75 million settlement in lawsuit against Interior

10:00 PM, Feb. 27, 2012  |  

The Fort Peck Tribal Council met Monday and passed a resolution   accepting the $75 million settlement offer from the U.S. government for   past mismanagement of tribal funds, land and natural resources. RICHARD   PETERSON PHOTO

The Fort Peck Tribal Council met Monday and passed a resolution accepting the $75 million settlement offer from the U.S. government for past mismanagement of tribal funds, land and natural resources. RICHARD PETERSON PHOTO

Written by RICHARD PETERSON

POPLAR — The United States government will pay the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes $75 million in a settlement agreement that resolves claims against the United States for past tribal trust fund, land and natural resources mismanagement on the reservation over the past century.

The Fort Peck Tribal Executive Board, during a special board meeting Monday, unanimously passed a resolution approving the settlement of Fort Peck Tribes v. Salazar. They also distributed a news release with some of the details of the settlement.

The lawsuit was filed in 2002 and is separate from the class-action lawsuit filed by the late Eloise Cobell in June of 1996. The Cobell v. Salazar case was settled for $3.4 billion on Dec. 7, 2009, but two active appeals in the case could delay payment by at least a year.

Although Fort Peck's allegations in its lawsuit are similar, the Cobell lawsuit was filed on behalf of individual allottees, and tribal governments were not involved. Numerous tribes across the country filed similar lawsuits in wake of the Cobell filing and some tribes have settled with the government during the past few years.

The document signed Monday will go to federal court for approval before the funds are transferred to the tribes.

Fort Peck Tribal Chairman Floyd Azure said negotiations with the Department of Interior stepped up about three months ago, culminating in a secret meeting between the tribal council and the department in Washington on Feb. 16, when the settlement offer was officially made.

Azure said the council was first contacted by Interior officials on Dec. 6, but the council was instructed not to make public the offer or it could put the settlement in jeopardy.

"This council has worked hard on this, and we put our differences aside at a time that was important for our tribe. This is really good for us," Azure told the council.

The settlement agreement includes at least one restriction as to how the tribal council will use the $75 million. The council voted Monday to hold public hearings across the reservation to see how tribal members want the money spent.

In return, the tribes agree that this payment resolves the tribes' claims against the government for its past mismanagement of tribal trust funds, including the tribal credit program, as well as for the United States' past mismanagement of tribal trust lands and natural resources.

The settlement preserves the tribes' rights and ability to protect the tribal trust lands, trust natural resources and trust funds in the future.

The tribal council stressed that the settlement does not affect, in any way, the tribes' water, hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering rights; rights and remedies under federal environmental laws; the tribes' eligibility for and right to receive other federal funds; any tribal claims against third parties; any claims against the United States in the future; and any rights or claims of any individual tribal member.