50 Years Ago: Tribe files $50 million lawsuit against feds

The Navajo Tribe made national news 50 years ago when tribal attorneys filed a federal lawsuit against the federal government for $50 million, claiming the Bureau of Indian Affairs mishandled the tribe’s oil and gas revenue.

Navajo Tribal Chairman Raymond Nakai said tribal leaders have been working on the lawsuit for more than three years, gathering evidence of BIA mismanagement. He added that the lawsuit may be amended to increase the dollar amount.

The suit, filed in the U.S. Court of Claims, asks that the BIA turn over to the tribe all of its accounting records dealing with the management of the tribal oil and gas assets. One aspect of the suit that tribal officials said would easily be verified was a claim that the BIA would take months after the companies paid the lease fees to turn them over to the tribe. By taking so long, the federal government deprived the tribe of hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest it would have received if the funds were deposited speedily.

Harold Mott, the tribe’s general counsel, said the BIA had complete control over the collection of oil and gas revenues since 1946. The government’s position was that the tribe did not have the expertise to handle the collection itself. But once the money is turned over to the tribe, it is placed in a savings account that is supervised by the federal government and cannot be accessed without the approval of the Interior Secretary.

But even there, the government is mismanaging the tribal funds, said the lawsuit. Federal law requires that the funds be invested in accounts that provide at least a 5 percent interest. Tribal officials claimed that the accounts used by the BIA only provide 4 percent. Nakai warned tribal members that this would take as much as 10 years to litigate but eventually the tribe would win. He was half right. The tribe did win but it would take more than 40 years.

In other news, the Navajo Times had been saying for more than three years that Navajos who live off the reservation in cities like Phoenix and Albuquerque are ambassadors for the Navajo people and should be positive role models. So it wasn’t surprising that Dick Hardwick, the editor of the paper, praised Nellie and Leonard Raymond in his weekly column.

The two, just married for nine months, were living in Huntington, Pennsylvania, where Leonard was a freshman math major at the local college. The two 19-year-olds had been profiled in the local newspaper, the Altoona Mirror. Hardwick said he talked to the reporter who wrote the story, adding that the reporter sent the Times a copy of the article that appeared in the Mirror.

In talking to Hardwick, the reporter praised the couple for their good manners and graciousness. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciated their grasp of the problems of young Indians in today’s society,” the reporter, Jacqueline Miller, said. “Their willingness to discuss them with me and their determination to do something about them.”

And finally, the Navajos sort of made national news this past week as the tribe found itself in the middle of a dispute between U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and U.S. Rep. San Steiger, R-Ariz. Kennedy had made a speech a while back when he was on the Navajo Reservation predicting that Congress would stop funding Indian programs so that the savings could be used to fight the Vietnam War. Kennedy was a vocal critic of the war and made the remark as sort of a doomsday prediction about what would happen if the war escalated. He said later that he was in no way saying that this would happen in the near future.

But Steiger took it that way, criticizing Kennedy for mistaking the facts in hopes of getting Indian leaders to support his anti-war stance. Steiger pointed out that the federal budget this year provided $498 million in federal assistance to Indian tribes. The next year’s budget increased that to $525 million.

By saying this on the Navajo Reservation, Kennedy was “undermining” the morale of the Indian people who have sacrificed their lives in service to their country, Steiger said. He said this was particularly true of the Navajos who have had the most military fatalities in the war than any other tribe.

Evenutally, Nakai was asked to respond to the debate and, according to Hardwick, it obviously caused him concern. He was an admirer of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the president who got the U.S. in the war, so he didn’t want to be viewed as being critical. But he also was on record as saying Navajo young men were paying too great a price in the war. So he did the only thing he could. “Both sides are valid,” he said.


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About The Author

Bill Donovan

Bill Donovan has been writing about the Navajo Nation government since 1971 and for the Navajo Times since 1976. He is currently semi-retired and is living in Torrance, California, and continues to report for the Navajo Times.