Martin Louie Sr. and other members of the Colville Confederated Tribes don’t feel like lottery winners despite the $5,989 checks they’ve just received for land taken a half-century ago by Grand Coulee Dam.
Louie, 88, looks out the window of his tiny travel-trailer home overlooking Lake Roosevelt at Inchelium, Wash., and remembers the days when the Columbia River provided all the salmon he could eat. Now, a filet of dried salmon costs $20 and comes from the Fraser River in British Columbia.
“Used to be, long time ago, we went anywhere to see our neighbors, the Spokanes or the Coeur d’Alenes, and we hunted and fished wherever we went,” Louie said. “We used to have salmon by the glory, all the way up from the ocean to Kettle Falls. …
“I don’t think the government has money enough to pay me for all of that.”
Even among young people, the settlement produces mixed emotions.
“We’ve lost a lot from the dam,” said Inchelium High School senior Chastity Watt, 17. “I never got to go up to Kettle Falls and see what my grandparents did. It’s just not there for me.”
The vanished waterfall used to be the second-richest inland salmon fishery in the Northwest.
Like Louie, 89-year-old Emma Green put her check in the bank and has little use for it. She said she’ll save it for a rainy day and probably pass it on to her children.
Green accepts Grand Coulee Dam as “one of those things” that was necessary even though “it cut off a lot of people’s livelihoods.”
In addition to fishing, “beautiful apple orchards” were lost when rising waters behind the dam flooded the area where the Gifford-Inchelium ferry now lands, Green said. The town of Inchelium was moved uphill, but the orchards were lost.
But Green thinks the bitterness has passed for most people, if not the regrets.
The settlement, she said, “was just too late for some of us. If they’d waited another year or two, it’d probably have been too late for me, too.”
Councilwoman Gloria Picard said one reason tribal leaders didn’t hold out for a bigger settlement was their desire to get the money to some of the people who first were displaced by the dam. “There were a lot of elders saying, ‘I hope I live to see this payment,’ and many, many of them didn’t,” Picard said.
The settlement reached last year was the result of a claim the tribes had filed in 1951 over unfulfilled federal promises. The tribes got $53 million, less 10 percent for attorney fees, as compensation for losses since construction of the dam began in 1933.
Additional payments of at least $15.25 million are scheduled every year the dam continues to operate. Tribal members haven’t decided whether to distribute future payments to individuals or use the money collectively.
Leaders worry that some of the approximately 8,180 tribal members will waste this year’s payments. The Tribal Tribune newspaper and various agencies have offered advice on investing the money, but a high percentage of tribal members are unemployed and have little experience in managing money.
Tribal leaders say they’ve received overwhelming support for a rule that prevents 18-year-olds from receiving payments until their high school class graduates. The idea is to eliminate the temptation to drop out of school, as many youths did when mining payments were distributed in the early 1980s.
Although the payments won’t make anyone rich, they are enabling some tribal members to accomplish lifelong dreams.
Mona Fabela, 46, a nutrition assistant in the Indian Health Service clinic at Nespelem, is using her check as a down payment on a five-acre home. She and her husband, Joseph, who is not a tribal member, always have had to rent because they couldn’t afford a large down payment.
Alvin Toulou, 70, an Inchelium barber and school bus driver, is trying to decide between a car and new furniture, both of which his wife wants. He suspects the furniture will win.
That was the choice for many of the Colvilles.
The Mt. Adams Furniture Factory, operated by the Yakama Indian Nation, sold about 80 couches, love seats and sofa sleepers at a trade show in Nespelem two weeks ago.
“It was a hell of a weekend,” General Manager Steve Fishburn said of the $19,874 in sales. “It made our month.”
Shamrock Auto Sales in Spokane also fared well. Co-owner Phyllis Branson estimated 80 percent to 90 percent of the 40 sales last weekend were to Colville tribal members.
The used-car firm, which has a history of dealing with tribal members, stocked up and stayed open three hours late on the Friday the settlement checks were mailed.
“We were selling a couple of cars before they even unloaded them from the truck,” Branson said.
A better car may be fine for established adults, but tribal elder Green hopes young people will invest in something that will last or grow. Stocks, a small business or land would be good, she suggested.
“I’d invest it in an education of some kind,” Green said. “That would be the best thing for them.”
At least some young people are doing exactly that. Chastity Watt plans to use her settlement to attend Washington State University. She wants a career in medicine and is considering dentistry.
Classmate Kristi Tonasket, also 17, has been accepted in the respiratory therapy program at Spokane Community College. She said she’ll use her settlement money for college costs or leave it in the bank.
Classmate Ta ti kum Sundust, 19, used some of his money to buy a 1988 Hyundai for use this August when he plans to go to Haskell Indian Nations College in Lawrence, Kan. He said he got a good deal on the car and has money left over for living expenses at college.
While the settlement stirs unpleasant memories for some, Sundust focuses on the present.
“I grew up like this, and there’s nothing I can do about it,” he said.
So, too, for Martin Louie, who grew up with the salmon and can never forget.
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