Colville members to vote on fate of $193 million settlement
Originally published July 13, 2012 at 11 a.m., updated July 14, 2012 at 10:40 a.m.
A previous version of this story reported the incorrect number of enrolled tribal members, and therefore the incorrect amount that each tribal member might receive with different payout plans. The sentence has been removed from the story.
NESPELEM — Colville Tribal members will vote in the next 30 days whether they want half of a $193 million settlement to be distributed to members, instead of the 20 percent that their leaders had previously arranged.
By a unanimous vote — and as one of the last acts of a council that was partially replaced by six newly-elected members — the outgoing Colville Business Council voted Thursday to ask enrolled members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation whether 50 percent of the settlement should be distributed to members.
Elected June 16, the new council was sworn in Thursday after the 2011-2012 council considered several resolutions that previously passed council committees, including honoring a petition that asked for a referendum vote on distributing 50 percent of the settlement instead of 20 percent.
Tribal leaders initially planned to use 80 percent of the settlement funds to restore forests and improve the long-term health of tribal resources.
The money is part of a $1 billion settlement from the U.S. government with 41 American Indian tribes whose trust lands were mismanaged by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The council did not say how much each tribal member would receive if they distributed 20 percent, or 50 percent, nor did they clarify whether any funds over 20 percent would be subject to income taxes.
“Never has this happened before in the history of the reservation to have such a large settlement dropped on us,” said Councilman Ernest “Sneena” Brooks III before the vote was taken.
“This is going to be a defining moment for this tribe. We have a big chunk of money. What are we going to do with it?” he asked.
He told his people that while 1,706 verified tribal members signed a petition to distribute 50 percent of the funds, a majority of the tribe’s members did not.
After a motion was made to put it to a vote of the people — but before a council vote was taken — tribal members and the council talked about reasons for distributing more funds, and reasons for keeping at least some of the money to restore tribal lands. The original resolution would have asked members to decide whether 50, 80 or 100 percent of the money should be given to members, but possible distribution of 80 percent or 100 percent were withdrawn before a vote was taken.
“I have to say, these past few months have been pretty trying,” said Councilman Brian Nissan, who also sat on the team to negotiate the settlement. “When we got the settlement, I remember being really happy for the tribe,” he said. Now, “People are looking at us from the outside and just seeing how greedy we are.”
Nissan said he felt a lot of people didn’t know that the settlement was to rectify mismanagement of tribal resources.
“If we don’t fix the land, nobody else is going to do it for us,” he said, adding, “We need to be thinking about the seven generations ahead of us whenever we make any decision.”
But tribal member Shirley Charlie, who once sat on the 14-member council, said it’s not greedy for tribal members to be asking for more of the settlement money.
“We’re not begging, nor are we looking for a handout. I want my share of the entitlement,” she told the council. She said tribal members were deeply affected by the mismanagement, and with two mills in Omak shut down, members are hurting. “It was a ripple affect. The families, the workers, we were all affected.”
Others, too, pushed the tribal council for a larger share of the settlement, while others talked about the degraded forests, rivers and lakes on the reservation.
Knowing there would be a large turnout, tribal leaders moved Thursday’s council meeting to the Nespelem Community Center, where more than 250 people packed the gymnasium. Some held up papers saying, “Honor the Petition,” and a man stood to the side with a large sign declaring, “Mismanagement. Council CTEC. Corruption.”
Some members told the council they just didn’t like being left out of the planning, and felt they had no say in how the funds would be used.
Others wanted to know what happened with funds from an earlier settlement with Douglas County PUD over lands flooded by Wells Dam.
Before the vote, council members tried to explain their reasons for initially setting aside 80 percent of the funds to restore tribal lands.
Andy Joseph Jr. said he wants to see creeks and rivers on the 1.4 million acre Colville Indian Reservation cleaned up so he can once again drink from them, as he did when he was a child.
He said the animals on the reservation didn’t get to decide whether to sign a petition about the settlement money.
“Our animals don’t have a vote here,” he said. Holding up a bottle of water, he added, “They don’t get to buy this clear water in the store.”
Joanne Sanchez, a tribal member from Moxee who circulated petitions in June asking the council to give more of the funds to tribal members, didn’t speak in front of the crowd. But after the vote, she was clearly pleased.
“It’s awesome,” she said. “We’re moving forward as a tribe. It’s not about the money anymore. Our tribe is together.”
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512
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