$554M Navajo Settlement: A Win but Not a Windfall

On May 29, 2014, the Navajo Nation Tribal Council voted to accept a $554 million settlement from the U.S. government for claims dating back to 1946 – starting the clock on a 120-day process of payment earmarked for September. It is and is not surprising that it has taken until yesterday for this news to hit the mainstream media, even though the tribe held a signing ceremony that published on YouTube on June 6, 2014. This kind of delay seems sadly common when it comes to news about Indian country. I hope this latest news will inspire the media to keep a closer watch on the tribes, as there is much positive change in the works today.

With the news now widespread, the Navajo Nation has made history in winning the largest settlement of its kind in U.S. history. We all need to remember, of course, that the $554 million is not a windfall but rather an attempt to offset tribal losses incurred due to federal mismanagement of tribal trust lands and leases. These leases involved farming, grazing, oil and gas development, mining and housing. Back in 2006 when this claim was first filed, the total loss to the Navajo Nation was valued at more than $900 million.

The Navajo Nation has since taken on significant responsibility for the leasing of nearly 14 million acres of its tribal lands and has a process in place should further disputes arise with the federal government. This is another positive step toward tribal sovereignty and self-determination.

President Shelly has stated there will be no spending plan but rather a 5-year Navajo investment plan. The tribe is creating an official investment committee (aka task force) to explore their best alternatives and options for investment. As of the 2010 Census, the Navajo Reservation had 300,048 tribal members inhabiting their 27,000 acres of tribal trust land. There is no shortage of options for investment. Challenges abound with housing, water, roads, electricity and other utilities, and general infrastructure, as well as a shortage of jobs and poverty ranging from 40-50%.

Andrew Sandler, a tribal attorney for the Navajo Nation, echoed the investment sentiment, saying some tribal members suggest the Navajo settlement funds be used for business development or put aside for future generations. The first investment committee meeting is reportedly scheduled for October.  We know from experience that such planning and implementation will take a while, as will seeing the fruits of the investments, but we look forward to seeing what the settlement becomes.

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