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Oklahoma tribe's detail federal government's $186 million lawsuit settlement

The lawsuit focused on tribal accusations that the federal government mismanaged hundreds of thousands of acres in southeastern and south-central Oklahoma where the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations were relocated in the 1830s after being removed from their ancestral homelands in the southeastern United States.

The federal lawsuit settlement calls for the Choctaw Nation to receive $139.5 million and the Chickasaw Nation $46.5 million,Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby said.
by Randy Ellis Published: September 27, 2015

The federal government has agreed to pay the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations $186 million to resolve a tribal trust land mismanagement controversy that has been brewing for more than 100 years.

Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby Attorney Reggie Whitten Choctaw Chief Gary Batton
Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby
Attorney Reggie Whitten
Choctaw Chief Gary Batton

"Our tribes have suffered many, many generations now," said Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby. "This settlement that we've achieved ... is a historic settlement — one that is intended to right the wrongs that were done after the turn of the century."

"For me, it's about empowerment of our people," added Choctaw Chief Gary Batton.

Batton said he looks forward to the Choctaw Nation using some of the proceeds to improve education so tribal members can see more of the opportunities that are available and understand how they can make an impact on the bigger world that is out there.

The federal lawsuit settlement calls for the Choctaw Nation to receive $139.5 million and the Chickasaw Nation $46.5 million, Anoatubby said.

The money is being split 75-25 because the two Indian nations owned the land jointly, with the Choctaw Nation having a 75 percent interest and the Chickasaw Nation a 25 percent interest under terms of the Treaty of 1855 and subsequent agreements.

U.S. District Judge Lee R. West filed an order Friday in Oklahoma City federal court approving the agreement. The order specifically states that the government was not admitting any liability or wrongdoing.

The Oklahoman reported in early July that a tentative settlement had been reached, but details of the agreement were unavailable until Friday, after tribal and government agency officials had the opportunity to review and sign it.

The lawsuit focused on tribal accusations that the federal government mismanaged hundreds of thousands of acres in southeastern and south-central Oklahoma where the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations were relocated in the 1830s after being removed from their ancestral homelands in the southeastern United States.

The tribes contended they were the victims of repeated swindles and severe mismanagement as government officials sold off more than 1.3 million acres of tribal timber lands from 1908 to 1940.

While the amount of the settlement is substantial, Chief Batton made it clear that he believes members of the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations would have been better off if the trust land had been properly managed in the first place.

"For me, I think it's such a mixture of emotions," Batton said. "If the federal government could have accounted for ... the dollars from when they sold this land, would the tribe have went through all the trials and tribulations that we've gone through the last 200 years in regards to the poverty that we're still facing today ... and all of the alcoholism? .... There's no amount of money that will ever pay for those injustices."

However, Batton said he was excited about the settlement and the "opportunity to begin the healing process."

Batton and Anoatubby said the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations will put the settlement proceeds to good use.

"We're in the process of building a new cultural center, so those dollars will help go towards that," Batton said.

The Choctaw Nation also will use proceeds to expand higher education programs, promote economic development, create jobs and help develop sustainable opportunities for citizens, he said.

Anoatubby said the Chickasaw Nation plans to invest its share of the proceeds and use it and the money it earns to support ongoing tribal programs, including programs designed to improve education and health care, provide services for youth and senior citizens, and combat drug and alcohol addiction. The tribe wants to develop programs that will be sustainable for generations, he said.

Both tribes also will use a portion of the proceeds to pay more than a dozen attorneys who represented them throughout the decade-long lawsuit.

Reggie Whitten, one of the tribes' attorneys, said the settlement "wasn't about the money.... It really was about principle."

The tribes were forced to relocate from their tribal homelands to Oklahoma "at the barrel of a gun," Whitten said.

"You can't right all of those wrongs, but this is the best the government can do today and I'm proud of them for what they did," Whitten said. "The principle that has been reached here is a big deal."

Randy Ellis The Oklahoman's newsroom September 27, 2015