Navajo win pay-out to settle 50-year-old dispute

A young Navajo in tribal costume. Inset president Obama. Picture: Getty
A young Navajo in tribal costume. Inset president Obama. Picture: Getty
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The Obama administration has agreed to pay the Navajo Nation a record $554 million (£340m) to settle longstanding claims by America’s largest Indian tribe that its funds and natural resources were mishandled for decades by the United States government.

The accord – resolving claims that date back as far as 50 years and marking the biggest US legal settlement with a single tribe – will be formally signed at a ceremony today in Window Rock, Arizona, the capital of the sprawling Navajo reservation.

The deal stems from litigation accusing the government of mismanaging Navajo trust accounts and resources on more than 14 million acres of land held in trust for the tribe.

It was leased for such purposes as farming, energy development, logging and mining.

In return for the $554 million, the Navajo agreed to dismiss its lawsuit and forego further litigation over previous US management of Navajo funds and resources.

But the deal does not stop the tribe from pursuing separate claims over water and uranium pollution on its reservation, Navajo Attorney General Harrison Tsosie said.

“It is very important for the Navajo people to understand that this agreement only addresses historical trust claims and does not prohibit or hinder our nation from pursuing claims with respect to future conduct,” said Lorenzo Curley, the chairman of the council’s Naabik’iyátí’ committee trust mismanagement litigation task force, who was involved in the negotiations with the Obama administration.

Navajo Nation president Ben Shelly hailed the outcome as a “victory for tribal sovereignty” and promised to host meetings to decide how to allocate the funds.

The Navajo Nation is the most populous American Indian tribe, with more than 300,000 members, and the largest by land mass, occupying 27,000 square miles across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Mr Shelly said: “After a long, hard-won process, I am pleased that we have finally come to a resolution on this matter to receive fair and just compensation for the Navajo Nation.”

Sam Hirsch, of the justice department’s environment and natural resources division, said: “From his first days in office, president Obama has worked to honour the government-to-government relationships between the United States and tribal governments.”

“It reflects my personal commitment to resolving long-standing lawsuits rather than wasting the time and resources of both the United States and Indian tribes in contentious litigation.”

The deal comes over two years after the administration announced similar settlements with 41 tribes for about £600m.

Since then, the government has resolved breach of trust claims by nearly 40 additional tribes for more than £900m, an official said.

Mr Shelly publicly revealed in May that the Navajo had reached an agreement in principle with the government. The sides said on Wednesday that the deal had been fully approved and executed.