The enormous $940 million class-action lawsuit against the BIA on behalf of tribes cleared the last court hurdle today in New Mexico. The case stems from decades of short-funding tribal contracts. More than $100 million will be awarded to tribal organizations in Alaska. (A full list of the settlements is online here.)
The settlement is similar to one reached with the Indian Health Service last year, that also found tribes had agreed to contract amounts for tribal services but were then shorted the funds, or in some cases, not awarded any money at all for the signed contracts with the federal government.
The Ramah Navajo tribe started the suit which eventually became a class-action for hundreds of tribes and tribal organizations across the nation. The suit covered BIA tribal contracts from 1994 until 2013. After the tribes won, notices went out to them laying out the settlement.
Lloyd Miller is one of the attorneys working the case for tribes. He says a November deadline for tribes to object to the settlement terms passed with no disagreement.
“Which was stunning to us, a settlement that involves this kind of money, people are experienced with Cobell, which was controversial, not here and these are tribes able to get a lot of money. None objected to anything.”
Although no tribes objected to the amounts or the terms, Miller says, they did hear from tribes that had been missed.
“And the database the BIA used to develop the master list was incomplete. So we found another database. And from that database we picked up another 55 tribes and tribal organizations — many of them Alaska. So now we have a total of 699 Alaska Native villages, American Indian tribes and intertribal organizations.”
He says the incomplete lists were the result of software changes within the BIA over the course of the 20 years the litigation has been ongoing.
“We were tasked with trying to combine software from many different sources and produce a master database that we could use in the case. We needed to use that software to do a statistical sampling of the whole class — of all 10,000 contractors, contract years that were at issue in the case. I hope that the BIA takes this to heart. We can’t get them ordered to do record-keeping in a certain way, but I think they’ve learned a sobering lesson in finding out that they missed 55 tribes.”
Miller says today’s hearing was the last check in with the court after the additional tribal groups had been included in the settlement. He says Judge James Parker should issue his final orders in the case within two weeks. Payments ranging from tens of millions to tens of thousands will be issued toward spring. Miller says 209 tribes in Alaska will receive more than 123 million dollars.