Bureau of Indian Affairs owes $15.6 mil plus interest to Navajo Nation

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — On April 4, the Washington D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)owes the Navajo Nation approximately $15.6 million plus interest in money it withheld from the Nation’s judicial branch operations in 2014.

In doing so, the Court of Appeals reversed the District Court’s March 2016 decision denying the Nation’s motion for summary judgment under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (ISDEAA).

The BIA awarded the Nation only $1.3 million in 2014. The Nation argued that the denial of the majority of its funding request by the BIA was untimely.

Under the ISDEAA, the BIA has 90 days to deny a tribe’s funding proposal, or the proposal is automatically approved. Although a BIA employee accepted and time-stamped the Nation’s proposal on Oct. 4, 2013, the BIA argued that because of a partial government shut-down the 90-day clock did not start running until Oct. 17, 2013.

The Court of Appeals disagreed with the BIA, holding that both the ISDEAA and federal case law supports the Nation’s assertions that the 90-day deadline began running on Oct. 4, 2013. 

The Court chastised the BIA for arguing that the Nation’s failure to respond to correspondence prior to the BIA’s final denial of funding should preclude the Nation from seeking the denied funding.

“The government itself has consistently taken the position that estoppel does not apply against the sovereign United States,” the court said. “It thus ill-behooves the government to seek to impose such an uncommon action against another sovereign, especially one to which it owes a ‘distinctive obligation of trust.’”

Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez commended the U.S. Court of Appeals decision to hold the BIA accountable for trust responsibilities to the Navajo Nation.

“Withholding funding from our tribal courts was not only ill-advised, but a repudiation of government-to-government relationship between sovereign entities,” Nez said. “We appreciate the reversal by the court to rectify this injustice.”

Navajo Nation Chief Justice Allen Sloan said the Nation looks forward to ultimately bringing the case to a favorable resolution so that it can provide much needed services to the Diné people.

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