- Associated Press - Friday, December 19, 2014

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) - There has been “major progress” in settlement negotiations between the government and a group of Indian tribes over inadequate federal payments for support costs on public programs the tribes took over administering, a federal judge wrote this week.

Federal Magistrate Judge Karen Molzen wrote in a Tuesday filing in U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico that negotiations in the settlement process are ongoing. The negotiations are the result of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of the tribes, including the Oglala Sioux in South Dakota, that is potentially worth millions of dollars.

Oglala Sioux Tribal Councilman Mike Her Many Horses and Tribal President John Yellow Bird Steele were in Albuquerque, New Mexico, this week for negotiations with the U.S. Department of Justice, which is representing the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Michael Gross, an attorney for the tribes, declined to say how much money his clients are seeking to reclaim. But the litigation has already spawned two partial settlements for the tribes, one for about $80 million and one for $29 million.

The high court ruled that the government shorted the tribes by not adequately covering contract support costs on programs the tribes took over as far back as 1975, when Congress enacted changes to give Native Americans more control over local program operations. The negotiations are part of a legal “odyssey” that stretches back to 1990, when the tribes began contending the feds weren’t meeting their obligations, Gross said.

The Oglala Sioux joined the litigation in 1999. Her Many Horses said tribal health administration is one area that has suffered from the underfunding.

“We service less people than we normally could have,” he said.

He also said the federal shortfall forced the Oglala Sioux to borrow money for payroll expenses, which cost the tribe even more money in interest payments.

Gross, Yellow Bird Steele and Her Many Horses declined to comment on the specifics of the settlement headway.

“We made a lot of progress,” Gross said, adding that he hopes the negotiations are wrapped up within a few months.

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