Forty-one tribes, and thousands of individual Native Americans, must soon decide what to do with the proceeds from two legal settlements negotiated with a federal government that over decades was even more careless with their community and personal resources than it is with those of all Americans today.
The tribes will split $1 billion, and as many as 500,000 individuals will share another $3.4 billion due them because the federal government, acting as trustee for assets such as mining and oil claims, timber and grazing rights, cannot account for lease and other payments going as far back as the 19th century. The mismanagement was all too characteristic of federal attention to the obligations it assumed as treaties were negotiated to end the Indian Wars that swept the tribes from their traditional homelands or confined them to a fraction of their former domains.
Individual claims are expected to be resolved for about $1,800. Some may receive more. That case was filed against Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and his predecessors by the courageous Elouise Cobell, a rancher and Blackfeet Tribe official who died of cancer last fall.
The Nez Perce had the honor of being the designated plaintiffs in the separate lawsuit brought by the tribes. The Nez Perce, based in Lapwai, Idaho, are one of several tribes in the Inland Northwest, including the Coeur d’Alenes, Colvilles, Confederated Salish and Kootenai, and Yakamas, who will likely receive checks sometime this summer.
Nez Perce members have already voted to divide their $33.6 million share of the settlement, with each member to receive somewhat less than $10,000.
In communities with high poverty and unemployment rates, the temptation to make quick work of such a windfall is understandable. So is distrust of tribal authorities trying to hold on to some funds that could be used to restore forests and other depleted resources. The Colvilles, for example, will receive $193 million. The tribe’s leaders have proposed an initial 20 percent distribution to members, but more than 1,000 have signed a petition seeking at least half the money.
Tribes and tribal members all over the United States, with their different needs and circumstances, will be looking for a formula that divvies their funds appropriately. We hope they take the long view.
Given the generations of Native Americans who lived in want because they did not get what was theirs, setting aside at least a portion for the generations to come should be part of the split. There are communal resources, cultural and environmental, that should not be overlooked.
As more tribes have prospered because of casinos or other enterprises, they have addressed precisely those needs. The settlements are an opportunity for less–endowed tribes to do the same.