Native American Cases

United States v. White Mountain Apache Tribe, No. 01-1067
United States v. Navajo Nation, No. 01-1375

Another legal doubleheader took place December 2, 2002, when the Court heard back-to-back arguments in two important Native American Indian rights cases that ask the Court to clarify the "trust relationship" between Native American tribes and the federal government.

In one case, the United States v. White Mountain Apache Tribe, No. 01-1067, the tribe seeks damages for the U.S. failure to protect and preserve Fort Apache. In the other, United States v. Navajo Nation, No. 01-1375, the Navajo Nation seeks damages for the government's mismanagement of a tribal mineral lease.

To say that the federal government has a "trust" responsibility to Native American tribes means that it has a legal obligation to act in the tribes' best interests with respect to tribal funds and resources. While this relationship between the federal government and Native American tribes has been recognized in treaties and statutes, the precise remedy available in the event the government breaches this duty has been much less clear.

Like virtually every Native American law case to reach the Supreme Court, the issues in United States v. White Mountain Apache Tribe, No. 01-1067, are grounded in history. Fort Apache was built in 1870 to be a base from which the U.S. Cavalry could conduct its running battles with the Apache warrior Geronimo and other Apache bands. In 1960, Congress declared the fort "to be held by the United States in trust for the White Mountain Apache Tribe, subject to the right of the Secretary of the Interior to use any part of the land and improvements for administrative or school purposes for as long as they are needed for that purpose."

Among other things, the tribe would now like to develop the fort's potential for tourism. In 1976, portions of the fort were named a national historic district; and in 1993, the tribe adopted a plan to rehabilitate the buildings that had been allowed to fall into disrepair while under the government's control. The United States said that while it was willing to transfer some of the buildings to the tribe, it was not willing to pay for any repairs.

In 1999, the tribe sued the United States for the $14 million in damages caused by the government's failure to preserve and repair the fort. The government responds that it cannot be made to pay damages because the 1960 law that created its trust relationship with the tribe did not specifically say it could be subjected to such liability.

Similarly, in United States v. Navajo Nation, No. 01-1375, the United States has argued that even if it did mismanage a tribal mineral lease, as the Navajo allege, it still cannot be made to pay damages because the laws that created its trust relationship with the tribe did not mention money damages.

In 1964, the Navajo Nation entered into a fixed-price lease entitling the Peabody Coal Company to mine coal from Navajo land for twenty years at a royalty rate of 37.5 cents per ton. When the lease came up for renewal in 1984, federal studies concluded that a 20-percent royalty increase would be reasonable. However, after the secretary of the interior attended a secret ex parte meeting (that is, a meeting with only the coal company officials and no representatives from the Navajo Nation), he decided to delay issuing a final decision approving that 20-percent increase and later approved a much lower royalty rate.

The tribe is seeking $600 million in damages for the secretary's alleged breach of trust in a suit that claims he suppressed "a well-supported decision raising Navajo coal royalties from extremely low rates, deceived the Navajo Nation and withheld from it key information, forced it to negotiate at a decided disadvantage, and ultimately approved a lease of Navajo coal for far less than every federal study had found reasonable, all in violation of applicable statutes, departmental regulations, and the core trust duties of loyalty, candor, and care."

Together, the Apache and Navajo cases have enormous importance, both to the tribes who are seeking to hold the federal government to a high standard of care and to the United States, which fears it could face huge liabilities if forced to pay damages when it violates its trust responsibilities to Native American tribes.

Resources for the Apache Case

Read the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals' Opinion holding that the Apache Tribe can maintain a suit for damages in the Court of Federal Claims.

Read the United States Brief arguing that the tribe should not be allowed to sue the United States on these grounds.

Explore the White Mountain Apache Tribe's Official Web Site.

Read the transcripts from the December 2, 2002, Oral Arguments in the Apache case.

Read the Court's March 4 Decision rejecting the government's argument that no statute or regulation could fairly be read to authorize compensation for its breach of its legal obligation to maintain or restore the property it held in trust at Fort Apache.

Resources for the Navajo Case

Read the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals Decision that a trust relationship exists with the Navajo Nation and that monetary damages are an available remedy for breach of this trust.

Read the United States Brief arguing that the tribe should not be allowed to sue the United States on these grounds.

Explore the Navajo Nation's Official Website.

Read the transcripts from the December 2, 2002, Oral Arguments in the Navajo case.

Read the Court's March 4 Decision accepting the government's argument that no statute or regulation could fairly be interpreted as mandating compensation for the government's alleged breach of trust in approving a lease of Navajo coal for far less money than every federal study had found reasonable.

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