fter 17 years of litigation and re-litigation, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation and its members received the fruits of a class action suit involving 40 other federally-recognized tribes as well as hundreds of thousands American Indians across the U.S. Initially filed as Cobell v. Kempthorne and settled as Cobell v. Salazar, the settlement has been dubbed the ‘Salazar settlement.’
Over the course of the last two years, Tribal Council Chairman Harry Smiskin and Yakama Tribal attorneys successfully negotiated for a $188 million portion of the whole $3.4 billion settlement, which was dispersed equally among almost 9,000 Yakama tribal members.
Under court order, Smiskin was not allowed to disclose the details of these negotiations.
The result—a sudden influx of large amount of cash in relatively small and poor community—has not only affected businesses on and around the Yakama Indian Reservation, but it has effectively changed many lives.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised that a significant contingent of the community spent the money wisely—investing in their homes and buying automobiles—a lot of positives,” said Smiskin. “I’m sure local businesses are happy. They had to spend the dollars somewhere.”
One such store, H&H Furniture Outlets, with stores in Toppenish and Yakima, significantly felt the effects of the financial settlement.
“That was the best week I’ve had in 25 years,” said Peterson.
Columbus Day weekend—a typically decent time for rentals, “saw a cash equivalent that was higher than the whole year up to that time.
“We were shipping things from Yakima to Toppenish so fast that we literally have no furniture in our Yakima store—just incredible numbers,” said Peterson.
H&H even had to hire additional staff and extended shits late into the night to accommodate the sudden onslaught.
he relationship between Yakama Nation tribal members and non-natives has historically been fraught with tension, and the sudden flood of $188 million dollars into the community has, at the least, affected perceptions and, for some, significantly increased tensions.
Smiskin noted a prevailing opinion that the settlement payouts were part of a federal entitlement program. They were not.
“It was a [litigated] settlement agreement. The government didn’t live up their fiduciary agreement,” said Smiskin.
Often forgotten, the results of the settlement is couched in hundreds years of social upheaval and broken treaties explained Serena Spencer-Laws, a Yakama Nation tribal member and owner of Kilt This!, a Wapato-based custom kilt making outfit.
According to Spencer-Laws, the presence of so much cash has started widespread rumors of increased Indian muggings and robberies.
Both the Wapato and Tribal Police stations and Chairman Smiskin denied those claims, reporting no such activity.
Still, as Spencer-Laws explained, the highly public knowledge of an often-marginalized group receiving such a large amount of money has fundamentally changed the way people do business.
While Yakama Nation tribal members waited in line at the Key Bank parking lot last week to receive their portion of the settlement, Spencer-Laws witnessed car dealers handing out business cards—an entirely new experience for many. When tribal members shop now, most salesmen and women know that they have money and it makes some “nervous.”
“This is the only time in their life they’ll have a chunk of cash like that,” said Spencer-Laws.
In many ways, the experience has brought pockets of the tribal community together, said Spencer-Laws, who has re-connected with estranged family members.
“It’s in our culture to protect each other. I reached out to my family to make sure my family was safe,” said Spencer-Laws.
Spencer-Laws also noted a new sense of fiscal awareness within the community insofar as “putting that money towards paying down debt and home improvement.”
As for the recent protests and calls to remove tribal leadership from within the community, Smiskin is happy to report all that noise has died down.
“It’s no longer an issue,” said Smiskin. “They realized what tribal council was telling them all along was the truth. There was no underhanded anything.”
With a gag order preventing Smiskin and other leaders from speaking about the negotiations, the door was left open for rampant speculation of tribal council mismanagement and obfuscation.
It was big miscommunication that the tribal council had little power to affect confirmed Spencer-Laws, who formerly served as the executive secretary for previous Tribal Council Chairman.
ccording to Smiskin, previous tribal leadership had not actively pursued the case that the Yakama Nation was a named plaintiff in. Shortly after he was elected chairman at the start of 2010, in-house legal counsel brought the case to his attention, and the tribal council moved quickly—unanimously approving immediate action on the matter.
The original case was filed in 1996 against the U.S. Department of the Interior, its Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Treasury for mismanagement of Indian land trusts and unpaid claims. What would become a historic American Indian legal victory took a surprising turn in 2005, when the federal Senior Judge Royce Lamberth overseeing the case was removed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for “exceeded the role of impartial arbiter.”
In one of his last opinions, Lamberth wrote: “our ‘modern’ interior department has time and time again demonstrated that it is a dinosaur–the morally and culturally oblivious hand-me-down of a disgracefully racist and imperialist government that should have been buried a century ago, the last pathetic outpost of the indifference and anglocentrism we thought we’d left behind.”
In December of 2010, President Barack Obama signed legislation authorizing the payout of $3.4 billion settlement negotiated by Interior Sec. Ken Salazar and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder—making it one of the largest federal payouts in U.S. history.
$1.4 billion was allocated to a trust administration fund and $2 billion to a trust consolidation fund for individual Indian members and Nation-tribes, respectively. The settlement also included an Indian Education Scholarship Fund, which will be made up of five percent of the payouts made.
Endemic of most American Indian policies, Smiskin rightly pointed out that that breakdown too is overly simplistic. Each of the 41 sovereign American Indian tribes involved in the class action negotiated independently, coming to 41 unique settlement terms.