In May, the feds struck a $1 billion settlement with 41 American Indian tribes, the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed in late 2006, Nez Perce Tribe, et al. v. Salazar, et al., alleging that the U.S. government mismanaged tribal funds. The settlement is similar to, but entirely separate from, the $3.4 billion Cobell settlement reached in 2010.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes is one of the 41 plaintiffs, and they're due more than $150 million. On July 26, its Tribal Council divvied it up: Each of the tribes' roughly 7,850 members will receive $10,000. The tribe will squirrel away the rest—about $71.5 million—for "undetermined" cultural and economic programs, says tribal spokesman Robert McDonald. "Nothing's been earmarked."
The $10,000 isn't enough for Carlita Gonzalez, a 52-year-old CSKT member who, along with a dozen or so others, stood in the shadow of the pedestrian bridge that spans Highway 93 in Pablo, in the center of the Flathead Reservation, on the morning of Monday, July 30, protesting for more. "We're out here picketing for 100 percent," she said—more than $19,000 each. Several passing cars honked in approval.
Gonzalez and her fellow protesters, who call themselves "The People's Voice," spent all day there, with plans to demonstrate "all this week, and next week too, if that's what it takes for them to give it to us."
Gonzalez argued that individual tribal members should decide how to spend the money, not the tribal government. "We don't even know specifics of where they're going to put our money, and it's the people's money," she said. She offered a handout, titled "Reasons for the Protest," stating that not all tribal members will benefit from the programs council could invest in, that such programs could be "under poor management" and that impoverished members could use the cash.
But McDonald says the council carefully deliberated, over the course of several public meetings, how best to use the money. He says those who attended the meetings voiced four priorities: providing for elders, preserving native language, cultural programs and economic development. The council's decision to bank almost half of the $150 million, he says, "is an effort to strike a balance between the needs that were expressed in those meetings as well as an attempt to plan for the future."