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Colville tribal court affirms plans for federal settlement funds

Fri., Oct. 11, 2013

A tribal court has affirmed the Confederated Colville Tribes’ plan to use half of a $193 million federal settlement to strengthen job opportunities and cultural traditions on its 1.4 million-acre reservation, instead of spending the money on payouts to members.

The $193 million was among the largest of 70 such settlements that the U.S. government made with tribes in recent years. The settlement ended a lawsuit over decades of federal mismanagement of receipts from logging sales, agricultural leases and mining activity on the Colville Tribes’ lands.

But the 2012 settlement also led to disagreements over how the money should be spent on the economically depressed reservation. Tensions broke out between factions that wanted to distribute the money to members and others that wanted to funnel it into long-term development projects.

Half of the $193 million was distributed to the Colville Tribes’ 9,500 members through per capita payments. Late last year, the tribe’s governing council received petitions from some members asking for a public vote on whether the remaining money should be paid out to members.

The Colville Tribes’ council declined to hold a vote. Instead, council members passed a resolution to use the remaining $96.5 million for long-term projects, such as a Native language endowment fund, land purchases, forest restoration and other economic and community development projects.

The council was sued in tribal court in an effort to force the vote. Plaintiffs in the suit were Yvonne L. Swan, a member of the tribe, and a group calling itself “Colville Members for Justice.”

Judge Cynthia Jordan of the Colville Tribal Court dismissed the suit this week, saying the court lacks jurisdiction to hear the case, according to a press release from the tribe.

Michael Finley, the Colville Tribes’ chairman, said the council members understand the plaintiffs’ goals but think the remaining settlement money is better directed to projects that will benefit tribal members in the long-run.

“This money has presented our tribe with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to develop cures rather than apply bandages,” Finley said in a statement. “While the contentiousness that has surrounded this issue makes it impossible to feel like this case could have a positive outcome, we trust that our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, will benefit from the court’s decision.”

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