Michael Burrage, First American Indian Federal District Judge
As one of the first Native Americans to be appointed to the federal bench, I have had a chance to witness firsthand the evolution of this country’s conduct toward our citizens. But now I fear the historic legacy of President Obama’s pro-Native American policies is being put at risk by the Department of Justice’s longstanding policy of obstruction and hindrance to resolution of Native American cases before the federal government.
In a lawsuit involving the illegal sale of 1.3 million acres of valuable timberlands, the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations have spent almost a decade simply trying to get the federal government to provide an accounting of the land they sold and what they received in exchange. The DOJ has spent these years refusing to provide even the basics of a legitimate accounting of what happened to this land, to whom it was sold and for how much.
President Obama and Secretary Sally Jewell have repeatedly said they want these outstanding Native American court cases settled — and settled with dignity. The only obstacle to a respectful agreement is the bureaucracy of the Department of Justice, which still insists on defending policies that are outdated, historically repulsive, and clearly immoral.
Because of the DOJ’s unwillingness to have any meaningful or respectful conversation, the two Nations are scheduled to take both the DOJ and the Department of Interior to trial beginning July 14.
Unfortunately, the DOJ is demonstrating the same patronizing behavior and tactics that so outraged the Court in the Cobell case, leading to eventual censures, contempt and embarrassment. History will show that they have learned nothing. A blunder here could undo some of the positive impact of the Cobell settlement and serve as a reminder of the same acrimony and condescension demonstrated during the long years that Cobell was before the Court.
President Obama and Secretary Jewell have recognized that the protections promised to the tribes to manage and oversee their own timber rights were ignored, neglected, or corrupted. No legitimate audit exists to show how much the Nations are owed by the U.S. government for its illegal sales and mismanagement.
Right now, reasonable action can be taken by President Obama’s Administration to demonstrate a genuine change in respecting the sovereign rights of Indian Country by resolving the Choctaw and Chickasaw timber issue in a manner that honors the Nations, the U.S. government and, certainly, President Obama’s legacy. Will this administration be remembered for assuring that justice applies equally in Indian Country, or will it be remembered for settling the big cases when it had an impact on elections but allowing its hands to be tied by bureaucrats when the world wasn’t watching?
Michael Burrage is a former Chief United States District Judge. He is a tribal citizen of the Choctaw Nation. Mr. Burrage is the co-founder of Whitten Burrage.