The U.S. government recently agreed to pay the Navajo Nation $554 million in the largest settlement ever to a Native American tribe. Coming on the heels of several other multimillion-dollar settlements with other tribes, the agreement is a landmark for government accountability and tribal sovereignty.
Last month Congress passed the Tribal General Welfare Exclusion Act, mandating that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) stop taxing tribal citizens who receive tribal government services such as education, health care, elder care, child care and housing. These are services that are exempt from taxes for other Americans who receive governmental aid. Indian tribes saw the IRS’ policy as the federal government’s refusal to recognize the status of their tribal governments. This act, like the Navajo settlement, represents an important governmental acknowledgement of tribal sovereignty.
Why does sovereignty matter? Since the founding of the United States, more than 300 treaties have been signed between the U.S. government and tribal nations. These treaties established a nation-to-nation relationship between tribes and the federal government. Over the years, however, the constant violation of these treaties resulted in American Indians’ being systematically deprived of their land, resources and control over their futures.
The Navajo Nation, the largest tribe in the United States, exemplifies the hardships faced by hundreds of tribes. Despite holding a huge and resource rich reservation, the Navajo Nation suffers an extremely high poverty rate. About 43 percent of Navajos live below the federal poverty line, barely half obtain a high school diploma, and unemployment on the reservation stands at a staggering 42 percent. A significant percentage live without basic services such as electricity and running water — which is unthinkable to most Americans.
Navajo leaders have argued that U.S. officials mismanaged tribal funds and resources from the 14 million acres of trust lands, which are leased for various purposes, including grazing, farming and logging, as well as oil, gas and mineral extraction. They contend that even this record settlement does not fully cover the Navajos’ losses. The suit filed in 2006 sought $900 million, the cost the tribe calculated from decades of losses due to mismanagement in the negotiation of natural resource contracts, the payment of royalties from the contracts and the investment of proceeds.
The Navajos are not alone in their losses through the land trust system. There are about 566 federally recognized Indian tribes in the United States. The Department of the Interior manages almost 56 million acres of trust lands, as well as 2,500 tribal trust accounts for more than 250 tribes. Fortunately for the U.S. government, only a small fraction of these have outstanding claims, and most are smaller than the Navajos’. However, if one multiplies just a tenth of the compensation given to the Navajo by these 250 tribes, that figure is close to $14 billion, which is still undoubtedly less than actual Native American losses in trust mismanagement alone. No wonder American Indians don’t have faith in the U.S. government.
The recent congressional action provides another sign that the federal government is moving in the right direction in building better relations with Indian nations. Under the new act, IRS field agents must undergo training in federal Indian law and the government’s legal treaty and trust responsibilities, a provision intended to help IRS officials understand the unique nature of the U.S. government’s relationship with Indian tribes.
In June, Barack Obama became only the fourth sitting U.S. president to visit an Indian reservation. While his visit was significant for American Indians, his pledge to improve conditions in Indian Country was received by many with caution because distrust runs so deep. The empty promises of presidents, broken as quickly as they were spoken, have been the norm rather than the exception for our people.
At the signing of the Navajo agreement, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell cited Obama’s support for tribal sovereignty and the nation-to-nation relationship. Congress affirmed this position with the passage of the Tribal Welfare Exclusion Act. Both events signal that Obama’s words will be backed by actions that support tribal self-determination and promote Native American well-being.
This country cannot rectify the wrongs perpetrated against American Indians over several centuries. But it can develop a respectful relationship with sovereign tribes as the basis of a dignified and mutually beneficial relationship. The Obama administration has started down this path, one I hope we will stay on through this administration and all the ones that follow.