By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will join hundreds of federally-recognized tribes across the country in receiving funds from a $940 million proposed settlement in a class action lawsuit known as the Ramah Navajo Chapter Settlement. The settlement seeks to end a 25-year dispute over contract support costs for tribal agencies.
“The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is part of the class action suit against the Department of the Interior for failing to pay total contract support costs associated with the programs, services, functions and activities that the Tribe contracts for through the self-determination authority,” said Hannah Smith, EBCI attorney general. “While the Tribe’s settlement amount has not been negotiated yet, the Tribe does expect a settlement. This phase of the very large class action against the Department of the Interior still has a way to go before EBCI will be paid the funding it is owed.”
The suit was first filed by the Ramah Navajo Chapter, a sub-unit of the Navajo Nation, in 1990. The Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota and the Pueblo of Zuni joined the suit as class representatives at a later date.
“This landmark settlement represents another important step in the Obama Administration’s efforts to turn the page on past challenges in our government-to-government relationship with tribes,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement. “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. Congress can and should make this happen.”
Kevin Washburn, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, commented, “From the tribes’ perspective, underfunding of contract costs is another broken promise. There is no longer any question that we agreed to pay these amounts and we are liable, the only question now is, how much money is needed to settle decades of liability with hundreds of tribal contractors?”
According to information from Michael P. Gross, Class Counsel for the suit from Santa Fe, NM, “The actual distribution of funds will be handled by a company to be selected as the ‘Settlement Administrator’. This company has not yet been selected. The Settlement Administrator’s work will be supervised by a Class Monitor. Both the Settlement Administrator and the Class Monitor will be required to report all of their work back to the Court.”
David Jose, Ramah Navajo Chapter president, said in a statement, “This settlement will be remembered as a landmark victory by over 645 tribes and tribal organizations across the country that operate programs under the Self-Determination Act. It will promote the Act’s goal of tribal self-sufficiency, self-reliance, and self-governance for generations to come and reduce unemployment on our reservations.”
John Yellow Bird Steele, Oglala Sioux Tribe president, commented, “We are satisfied with the fine settlement that has been reached here. Previously, they paternalistically shorted us and didn’t give a darn. We are hopeful that we are now entering into a period of mutual cooperation with the Department of Interior. We hope the settlement clears the air for the future.”
This issue reached the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on June 18, 2012.
According to the Final Settlement Agreement, “the United States Supreme Court held Defendants could not justify the failure to pay in full the contract support costs of an individual Tribal Contractor on the ground that Congress did not appropriate sufficient funds to meet the total contract support cost requirement of all Tribal Contractors…”