$92 million question
by Japhet Weeks, North Coast Journal 9/13/07
Money is often on the minds of the Yurok
Indians, but that's usually because there isn't enough of it
to go around. In addition to being California's largest tribe,
it is also one of the state's poorest. And with the tribe's
natural resources, once abundant, now facing an uncertain
future, the Yurok can't just wait for money to drop into their
Or at least, that's the way it seemed until
this past spring, when a large sum of money did just that. In
April the tribe was paid $92.6 million by the Department of
the Interior. The money, known as the Yurok Trust Fund, came
as the result of a 1988 act of Congress that established the
Yurok reservation and also stipulated that payment be made to
the tribe for the pre-1988 sale of timber on their land. But
in order to access the money, which has been accruing interest
for almost two decades now, the tribe had to agree not to sue
the federal government in regards to the 1988 law. That
concession was made just recently.
Now the question remains: What should the
tribe do with all that money? At a meeting for Yurok tribal
members only, held this past weekend in Eureka (additional
meetings were held elsewhere in and out of the county), a
large contingent of people insisted that the Yurok Trust Fund
be distributed in its entirety to the tribe's 5,100 members.
That has some worried that this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity
to invest in the tribe's future will be lost.
Stephanie McQuillen, who is running for the
South District seat of the Yurok tribal council -- the
primaries will be held next month, the general election in
November -- said of the Eureka meeting: "People were energized
and eager to have their voices heard that they wanted 100
percent per capita on the ballot. A smaller portion was more
solution-focused for coming up with plans that would meet the
needs of the entire tribe."
It's that smaller portion that forward-looking
tribal members are counting on this fall, when the final
proposal for what to do with the Yurok Trust Fund will come to
As it stands, there are seven proposals on the
table. Tribal members have been asked to fill out an opinion
poll and select the plan they think best. In turn, the tribal
council will use that information to draft a final proposal to
be voted on in November. One hundred percent per capita
distribution is not one of the seven options, but one plan
would distribute 90 percent of the money to tribal members and
invest 10 percent of it. The other proposals are much more
conservative, although all of them include some portion of per
Sid Nix, a tribal council member from
Weitchpec, has proposed a plan that would invest 70 percent of
the $92 million. Tribal programs would be funded from interest
Nix, who attended all of the recent meetings,
said that the majority of people who showed up were in favor
of investing some amount of the money. The question is: How
much? It comes down to a matter of principles, Nix said.
"People are living day to day on the reservation, going
without ... Being a member of a tribe you look out for each
other. You look out for the less fortunate people."
That theme was echoed by others. "To keep
together as a tribe we have to be tribal," said Yurok
elder Allen McCovey. He also pointed out that the lump sum to
be doled out if 90 percent of the funds are distributed per
capita -- around $15,000 -- hardly constitutes a windfall.
"You can't even get a good car for that."
One problem, according to McCovey is that some
tribal members are uneasy about leaving so much money in the
tribal coffers. "There is a lot of mistrust about, if they do
leave it in there, how it will be handled," he said. Another
concern among some tribal members living off the reservation
is the feeling that they don't benefit from tribal services
but would benefit if the money were distributed to them
Still, McCovey, who is in favor of investing
half of the $92 million and distributing the rest, is
optimistic that people will realize the benefits of investment
over 100 percent per capita distribution before it's too late.
His faith remains with his people. "We've been here for 10,000
years and I can't see greed breaking us up," he said.
-- Japhet Weeks