Decades after construction of a dam flooded their lands and destroyed salmon spawning grounds, the Colville Confederated Tribes are getting some restitution.
Federal compensation in the form of $5,988 checks began arriving Friday in mailboxes on the tribes’ northeastern Washington reservation. The money is from a lump sum of $53 million that the tribes are splitting equally among their 8,231 members, after legal fees.
In addition, the 12 tribes that make up the confederation will receive annual payments of at least $15.25 million that will start next March.
The settlement doesn’t fully compensate the tribes for damages suffered since work on the Grand Coulee Dam began in the 1930s, said Ernie Palmanteer Jr., chairman of the Colville Business Council.
“It’s a token payment, but it’s something that was the best we could get out of the negotiations,” he said.
The money stems from a claim the tribes filed in 1951 and that was settled last year in talks between tribal attorneys and federal agencies. Congress approved the settlement, and tribal members overwhelmingly supported the deal in a vote last spring.
The Grand Coulee Dam and Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir that formed behind the structure, flooded villages and thousands of acres of tribal land. The dam, completed in 1942, also destroyed salmon spawning grounds and wiped out tribal salmon fisheries.
The hydroelectric project brought cheap power to the Northwest and irrigated vast tracts of arid lands in Eastern Washington.
But the dam also harmed native cultures that revered both the salmon and the aboriginal lands that were lost, Palmanteer said.
About 10 percent of the settlement’s $53 million lump sum was used to pay legal fees. Tribal leaders considered spending some of the remainder on tribal business enterprises but decided to divide the entire sum equally among tribal members.
The annual payments will total at least $15.25 million each year for as long as the dam remains in operation and are to be paid by the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agency that markets electricity in the Northwest. The size of the payments will be tied to power rates and the economy.
Tribal leaders haven’t yet decided how to divide up that money. If divided among all members, payments would amount to about $2,000 per person.
Business was brisk Friday at area banks that had prepared for a rush of customers seeking to cash or deposit their checks.
“We’ve got about 50 people here, and they’re all lined up at the desk,” said Donna Benton, manager of a Seafirst branch in the town of Coulee Dam. “It’s been like this all day.”
Mona Berland, a data clerk at the Colville Tribal Credit Office in Nespelem, was busy helping tribal members who were using their checks to pay off loans.
Berland, a tribal member, used her new money to put a downpayment on an 80-acre ranch outside Nespelem where she lives with her husband and foster children. The family lives in a six-bedroom home.
“It’s heaven to me at the ranch, and it’s been a longtime dream for me to pay it off,” Berland said.
Many of her friends planned to use their checks to buy cars, shop for clothes or visit casinos, she said.
Area merchants are trying to capitalize on the infusion of new money on the reservation, where unemployment often reaches 50 percent during winters, Palmanteer said. Recreational vehicles, cars, boats and other items were put on display last weekend at a trade fair in Nespelem.
Palmanteer said tribal leaders were encouraging members to save and take financial management courses.
Many tribal members are used to dealing with cash and rarely put their money in bank accounts, Palmanteer said. He feared many would use their checks to make impulsive purchases.
“They haven’t been trained in saving money,” he said. “It’s really a major concern. But there’s really no way we can control it because it’s their money.”
Checks received by minors will be held in an interest-bearing trust fund until the recipients reach 18 or their high-school class graduates.
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