$175 million lawsuit filed against federal government by the Quapaw Tribe

Updated March 26, 2013 at 4:15 PM CST: The Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma is seeking $175 million as it enters a lawsuit with the federal government.

The Tribe filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against the Department of Interior, claiming the federal government failed to oversee cleanup of Indian lands after mining in the Tar Creek area.

Oklahoma state representative Tom Cole and the outgoing congressman Dan Boren are among supporters of the Tribe’s position.

Quapaw leaders say the lawsuit could have an economic impact on the entire area.

“The positive affect if we’re successful is it’ll bring dollars into the region and ultimately local businesses and banks, you know the grocery stores, car lots and that sort of thing, but I figure it’ll also help the people of the tri-state area, you know, and understand the problems the Quapaw Tribe has faced over time,” says Quapaw Tribal Chairman John Berrey.

Berrey says the Tribe hopes the case is resolved within the next two to three years.

The Tribe’s reservation land consists mostly of the upper northeastern section of Ottawa County, about 60 to 70 square miles.

Posted March 26, 2013 at 12:37 PM CST: News release from the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma

The Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma (O-Gah-Pah) and its members today filed a congressional reference lawsuit in the US Court of Federal Claims, seeking approximately $175 million in damages for past breaches of legal and equitably trust obligations owed to the Tribe and its members by the federal government. The case has been brought as a class action on behalf of all similarly situated Quapaw Tribal members. The breach-of-trust claims arise from the federal government’s failure to fulfill legal and trust obligations owing to the Quapaw.

In a rarely used procedure called “congressional reference,” the U.S. House of Representatives authorized the filing of this lawsuit on December 19, 2012, when it approved H. Res.668, the “Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma Congressional Reference Resolution,” referring to the underlying bill (H.R. 5862) to the U.S. Court of Federal Claims for a report on the amount legally or equitably due to the Quapaw. Primary sponsor Representative Tom Cole (R-OK) explained that he supported the resolution because “despite a 10-year legal process during which the tribe fulfilled every step of its agreement with the government, the Justice Department failed to follow through, leaving this important issue unresolved.” Other supporters of the bill included Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA).

Quapaw Tribal Chairman John Berrey stated: “We appreciate the hard work of Representatives Tom Cole and Dan Boren in supporting the Quapaw and the effort to have our day in court. We look forward to reaching a fair and equitable conclusion to these claims, a result that is long overdue for the Quapaw Tribe.”

The Quapaw Tribe has had a history concerning federal management of its lands and resources that is unique among Indian tribes. The Quapaw Reservation in the far northeastern corner of the state of Oklahoma was the site of one of the richest discoveries of lead and zinc ever made in the United States. However, within a very few years, the mining activities had destroyed the land. When mining began to decline in the 1950s the Secretary of the Interior failed to ensure that the companies operating on Indian Land conducted appropriate clean-up and restoration. As a result, much of the Tribe’s land base is polluted land with the Tar Creek Superfund Site. The Tribe’s investigations have disclosed that the federal government’s close relationship with the mining companies contributed to the lack of any meaningful clean-up of the land, as well as in other instances of government negligence. Due to the federal government’s mistreatment of the Quapaw, very few members of the tribe of the tribe ever benefitted from the tribe’s mineral wealth.

The litigation is addressed not only to the breach of trust that resulted in the pollution of Quapaw lands, but also to the federal government’s mismanagement of Quapaw lands and assets. Due to the mining activity, the Tribe’s Indian lands were in the location of extensive commercial activity for much of the 20th century. However, among many other serious breaches, the Bureau of Indian Affairs failed to obtain and collect market rates for leasing Quapaw lands and other assets. The BIA failed to collect any rents on many Quapaw lands for years, resulting in enormous sums due and owing to the Tribal members.

The Tribe began its own investigation into the federal mismanagement and corruption just over a decade ago. In one of many projects, the Tribe meticulously photographed virtually every document relating to federal management of Quapaw assets in the National Archives, a project that took over four years. The Tribe settled a lawsuit with the United States in 2005 that sought an accounting from the Tribe’s federal trustee, and in return was permitted to conduct a similar review of other federal documents relating to the tribe and its assets.

“There is a legacy in our tribe concerning the lands and assets that were stolen from our people or that were mismanaged.” Berrey said. “In order for our people to have closure on this history, these claims needs to be heard in a court.”

As part of the settlement of the Tribe’s accounting case, the Department of the Interior agreed to mediate the claims of the Tribe and its members. However, when the Tribe completed the accounting project and requested that the federal government mediate the Department of Justice interceded and told the Tribe to file a lawsuit. This failure of the federal government to keep its word with respect to the accounting project was one reason members of Congress cited in voting for the Quapaw congressional reference.

Our first choice was to sit down and talk, and we were very disappointed with the Justice Department’s position,” Berrey said. “But we have been determined to see this through to a conclusion, because our people deserve some measure of justice for the wrong the federal government has done.”

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