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Native Americans to get millions after 'big victory' in Supreme Court

The Supreme Court has ruled that the government must fully reimburse Native American tribes for millions of dollars they spent on federal programs.

The federal government had agreed to fully reimburse money tribes spent on programs like law enforcement, environmental protection and agricultural assistance, but Congress capped the amount of money earmarked for that reimbursement. The tribes sued, and the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver said the money must be fully reimbursed.

The high court on Monday ruled the Ramah Navajo Chapter and other Native American tribes must get their money back.


Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the majority opinion for Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Elena Kagan. Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito dissented.

"We stressed that the government's obligation to pay contract support costs should be treated as an ordinary contract promise," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the majority ruling which confirmed a Colorado appeals court decision.

"The government was obligated to pay the tribes' contract support costs in full."

Congress allocated $1.6 billion to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for "the operations of Indian programs" in 2000, according to news agency AFP, but only $120.2 million was paid out.

"Between FY [financial year] 1994 and 2001, appropriations covered only between 77% and 92% of tribes' aggregate contract support costs," the judgment read.

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Rodger Martinez, president of the Ramah Navajo Chapter in New Mexico that was a plaintiff in the case, told The Guardian newspaper that they were sad the case had to go to the Supreme Court, but "happy that they sided with us."

"This gets us back to the principle that the government must pay us what we are entitled to," he added.

Lawyer Jonathan Cohn, who jointly represented the tribes, told The Guardian that the judgment was a "big victory." He said that it was rare for the Supreme Court to side with the tribes.

"The government was trying to treat tribal contractors differently from all other contractors. If you were talking about a defense contractor, I don't think this case would have reached the Supreme Court – the government would have paid up long ago," Cohn added.

A massacre or a war?
Meanwhile, a dispute has broken out over plans in Chicago to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Dearborn, in which 60 Americans and 15 Native Americans were killed.

Chicago Alderman Edward Burke, who has pushed for a "Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation" on Aug. 15, gave a speech describing in grisly detail how Native Americans scalped and tortured their enemies and then suggested it was time to "smoke a peace pipe."

"This is what kids are learning today," said Joseph Podlasek, executive director of the American Indian Center of Chicago. "These types of stereotypes and myths are several generations old, and people tend to believe them."

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Burke's comment about a peace pipe took an item sacred to Native Americans and reduced it to the status of a movie prop, Podlasek said, citing it as yet another example of the kind of trivializations and distortions of Native American traditions and history that he and others have spoken out against.

There's long been dispute between Native Americans and mainstream historians about what happened at Fort Dearborn and in other battles involving American Indians. Three years ago, the city of Chicago changed the name of a park at the approximate location to Battle of Fort Dearborn Park, abandoning the former reference to what happened at Fort Dearborn as a "massacre."

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The fight happened during the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain. As U.S. soldiers and civilians evacuated Fort Dearborn, they were attacked by Potawatomis allied with the British.

Podlasek didn't dispute the outcome of the battle or the number of dead but said there's no evidence to support the violent descriptions of atrocities recited by people like Burke. There's no evidence scalps were taken at the fort, Podlasek said, and he questioned how much can be known about what was, in the end, a 15-minute battle.

"How come every time native people win it's a massacre, and when we lose it's just a war?" he asked. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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