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For Struggling Tribe, Dark Side to a Windfall

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Fishermen at the mouth of the Klamath River. The Yurok tribe faces declining fishing, high unemployment and issues with drugs and alcohol as it tries to decide what to do with logging proceeds.

Published: September 2, 2007

KLAMATH, Calif. — You do not have to drive far into the town of Klamath to see the poverty and the potential of the Yurok Indians, the largest tribe in California and one of the poorest.

Fishing With the YurokSlide Show

Fishing With the Yurok

 Tom Willson, a member of the Yurok tribe, is against individual payments. (mp3)
 Iksa George, another member of the tribe, supports individual payments. (mp3)

The tribe’s land is about 325 miles north of San Francisco.

Just off Highway 101, past an understocked grocery and an overstocked bar, sits a row of ragged mobile homes behind a chain link fence topped with barbed wire. Beat-up cars sit along the gravel drives, as does the occasional bored teenager.

There are also signs of change. A handsome tribal headquarters and a crisp new gas station anchor the reservation. And slot machines are on their way, 99 of them approved by the state, expected to be housed in a new building near tribal headquarters.

But in many ways, the Yurok people have already hit the jackpot. This spring, the Department of the Interior paid the tribe $92.6 million in logging proceeds, a figure roughly six times the tribe’s annual budget.

Yet even the silver cloud, it seems, has a dark lining. The money, which had been held in trust by the government for nearly two decades, has sharply divided the Yurok people, pushing them into two passionate camps: those who prefer long-term community projects and social programs and those who want the money handed up now.

It is a dispute that has echoed through meetings and conversations for months, and one that has upset elders who watched the tribe battle all manner of enemies — settlers and neighbors, white men and fellow Indians — only to find themselves fighting one another.

“We’re a culture people, we’re a fishing people and a ceremony people,” said Raymond Mattz, 64, a member of the tribal council. “But it’s a rough time for us because everybody is so poor, and the money is making everybody a little goofy.”

On one side of the issue are leaders like Maria Tripp, the tribal chairwoman, who favors programs to address the myriad problems the tribe has struggled with over the years, including high unemployment, flagging fishing, drugs and alcohol, and the dwindling of lands, traditions and hope.

“We’re not going to get another $92 million dropped in our lap,” Ms. Tripp said. “This is an opportunity for us.”

On the other, some here feel that the money could — and should — be used to alleviate the day-to-day problems for hundreds of the tribe’s 5,000 members.

“We’ve got tribal members right now who have been waiting all their life,” said Willard Carlson Jr., 57, a tribe member. “And the thing about it is, it’s not the tribal government’s money. It’s the people’s money.”

The settlement was a result of a 1988 act of Congress that established the Yurok reservation. The law provided payment for the pre-1988 sale of logs on their land, some 63,000 acres about 325 miles north of San Francisco that snake along the fog-shrouded, and once salmon-rich, Klamath River. To gain the timber payment, the Yurok leadership only recently agreed not to sue the government in regards to the 1988 law, said Douglas Wheeler, a lawyer with Hogan & Hartson in Washington who is representing the tribe.

The issue of how to spend the money is up for a vote this fall, and the tribal council is required to put forth a plan. But at a tribal meeting in early August, several speakers were already expressing impatience about the pace of progress. At the annual salmon festival on Aug. 19, the tribe’s biggest event of the year, one parade float included a large sign reading: “Lump sum for all tribal members — 100 percent of settlement, 100 percent of interest!”

Various per capita proposals being floated include adults-only allotments, as well as payments for all members, plans that could result in payments of roughly $15,000 to $20,000.

That sort of opinion infuriates tribe members like Tom Willson, who works at the town fishery and said the settlement should be “seed money, to buy some of our lands back, to run programs, to ensure that the Yurok people go on forever.”

“If we squander that money, we’ll be in bad shape in a couple of years,” Mr. Willson said. “We’ll be nowhere.”

It was not always this way. Tribal lore holds that the Yurok were once one of the most prosperous tribes in the West. Their lands were — and still are — spectacular: lush green mountains reflected in the placid waters of the Klamath, which flows into the Pacific through a narrow sand channel. Legend has it that the passage is guarded by Oregos, an outcropping of rock resembling a mother with a child on her back, and that the Klamath beyond her was once so full of salmon a person could walk across the river on the backs of the fish.

And sure enough, for many generations, the fish and the redwoods provided jobs and prosperity, members say.

But while Yurok fisherman still use traditional nets to catch salmon — which can bring more than $3 a pound at market — commercial fishing has largely faded, they say. The main culprit, in their opinion, is four upstream dams, structures the tribe wants removed, especially after a 2002 fish kill in which tens of thousands of adult salmon and steelhead trout died after low water levels caused disease to spread. Some members of the tribe have sued the dams’ owners.
Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Yurok tribe members preparing to cast nets on the Klamath River. Its land is about 325 miles north of San Francisco.

Logging has also suffered over the years, even as the tribe has been victim to other sorts of bad luck and policy. A 1964 flood devastated Klamath, as did a period of relocations after World War II. The tribe was not officially organized until 1992; it split from the neighboring Hoopa tribe as part of the 1988 act.

“Day to day, there are no jobs here,” Ms. Tripp said. “Fishing is bad. We have a lot of methamphetamine on the reservation. There are a lot of elders who wait year after year for help with housing, for help with a lot of programs. So there’s that feeling that they’ve waited long enough.”

Of the tribe’s 5,000 or so members, only about 1,500 live on the reservation, Ms. Tripp said, including those in remote upstream villages. About one-third of the tribe on the reservation lives off the electric grid, using gasoline generators, kerosene lamps and candles to fight the night.

Cultural differences between those on and those off the reservation have also been aggravated by the $92 million, as have tensions between older, more traditional members and more independent-minded youth.

Iska George, 20, a student who goes to college in Eureka, 65 miles away, said he wanted his share of the settlement to pay for tuition and living expenses. Mr. George said he could see spending 15 percent of the money on educational scholarships, but argued that the bulk should go to tribe members. “So I can get out of here and have a life,” he said, “and not be stuck on the reservation like everybody else is.”

Others want a compromise, with some money for programs and a per-capita payment. “I think I’d give out nine pieces of pie,” said Paul Van Menchelen, 47, a former drinker who pulled his life together and now sells salmon jerky by the side of Highway 101. He would divide the money, he said, into “$10 million each for elders, alcoholics, business owners. And I’d save some for that rainy day.”

Ms. Tripp said she would support a little money for both sides.

Right now, however, the Yurok heart seems conflicted. In July, the tribe held a brush dance, traditionally used to help heal a child, in this case a young member with asthma. Mr. Mattz, the councilman who was the plaintiff in a 1973 Supreme Court case that won for the tribe the right to fish in the Klamath, said attendance was larger than he had seen at a ceremony for a long time.

“It seemed like people needed that dance so bad, and I haven’t felt that in years,” he said. “I think it’s because of this money and people fighting. I think they needed the ceremony to get their thoughts on the river and the culture. It was a good feeling.”

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