FROM THE ARCHIVE

Apache Tribe wins trust case appeal

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MAY 17, 2001

Reversing a lower court decision, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday ruled that the federal government has a trust obligation to restore and rehabilite dilapidated buildings it is seeking to hand over to the White Mountain Apache Tribe of Arizona.

The case centers around Fort Apache, which was once a military post. Its use as a fort was ended in 1922, when the Department of Interior established a boarding school there for Indian children.

In 1960, Congress transferred the 400-acre fort to the tribe, with the exception that the Interior could continue to control some land and the school buildings. The Interior eventually offered to give these properties to the tribe.

But the tribe wanted control only if the government would rehabilitate the buildings. Like a number of Indian schools throughout the country, the Interior admits that some buildings at Fort Apache are in shambles and some were destroyed because they were unsafe.

So in 1999, the tribe sued the government for $14 million in damages, the amount estimated to rehabilitate the site. The Court of Federal Claims, however, dismissed the suit and said the government had no trust obligations involving Fort Apache.

The appeals court yesterday found that holding incorrect, saying the government's continued control of parts of Fort Apache created a fudiciary duty to the tribe. Accordingly, the tribe has a right to obtain some form of monetary judgment for the breach of trust.

The appeals court added, though, that it must be determined which portions were under "exclusive" control: only on those parts is there a duty owed the tribe. The Court of Federal Claims must now consider this position.

The federal court must also consider if any buildings are still controlled by the United States. If so, the tribe's claim might be premature. The government may also try to seek dismissal of the case due to a statue of limitations.

There are a small number of students enrolled at the boarding school. The school's status is under reviewed by the government.

The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals last week sided with another tribe in a trust relationship case, setting aside a claims court decision.

Get the Case:
WHITE MOUNTAIN APACHE TRIBE v. US, No 00-5044 (Fed Cir. May 16, 2001)

Related Stories:
Tribe wins royalty case appeal (5/14)
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