The long running legal case by the heirs of Andrew Oenga has resulted in a federal court awarding them $4.924 million against the United States.
The case involved the lease of Native trust land to BP, the giant oil company. Andrew Oenga, an Inupiat elder from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska neither spoke nor read English when the lease was drawn up in 1989, so the Bureau of Indian Affairs assisted him. Since Oenga could not communicate directly with BP, everything went through the BIA. The current settlement was awarded because the BIA did not protect Oengas’ interests while dealing with BP.
For the past 16 years, BP was allowed to use the land in ways not allowed by the lease to produce oil from unauthorized areas. BP also allowed ARCO and Exxon to use Oengas’ land for a fee. The BIA refused to tell BP to stop the unauthorized use and refused to collect additional rents from BP for authorized use even after the Oengas specifically asked BIA to take action.
In 2005, the Oengas sued the U.S. for money the BIA should have collected from BP for unauthorized use. BP and the other oil companies intervened. This “unauthorized use” portion of the case went to trial last summer, resulting in yesterday’s judgment of $4.924 million.
The Oengas are still owed additional funds from BP in aspects of the case regarding authorized production. Depending on interest, this rent due would total an additional $7 million to $12 million. That would bring the amount due the Oengas from this present judgment against the United States and from BP in other administrative forums to the range of $12 million to $17 million.
Joe Delia’s family is one of eight families descended from Andrew Oenga who will benefit from the money.
“Today’s $4.924 million judgment is a great victory, both for our family and for all of Indian country. It sends a strong message. The BIA has to start living up to its trust responsibility. The days of being buddy-buddy with big oil companies like BP are over,” he said.
He also commented on their growing families, with kids in school, and how this money would help with college expenses.
Joe also gave thanks to their attorney, Ray Givens. “We’re grateful we have Ray fighting for us, otherwise we’d end up with peanuts —next to nothing. We thank the Lord—he helped us out. He’s a good man and done a lot of good for Native people.”
Tony Delia, another grandson of Andrew Oenga, said, “Our Inupiat way is to work things out, not to fight. We have told BP that we are willing to renegotiate the lease so they can use our property to produce oil from Raven and other areas. We only ask to be treated fairly and to be paid what we are due.”
Givens had some general comments. “Like the big Indian trust Cobell case recently settled for several billion dollars, this Oenga case is another sad example of the BIA not living up to its trust responsibility owed Native Americans. Today’s judgement shows it can be expensive if the BIA continues to ignore their duty to Native people. Hopefully the BIA will do a better job in the future for other Native families like Oengas.”
Although the federal court has delivered its ruling, the U.S. could file an appeal in the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals. If that should happen, the Oengas would not be paid anything during the one- to two-year appeal period.