POLSON – One after another, members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes emerged from Eagle Bank on Wednesday with a broad smile and a thick envelope.
“I’m getting a white Impala tomorrow,” said an elated Barbara Finley, who is one of approximately 7,850 enrolled members who received checks for $10,000 in the mail on Wednesday morning as about half of a $150 million settlement with the United States government was distributed across the Flathead Indian Reservation.
The dispersal is part of a $1 billion settlement in a lawsuit initially filed by the Nez Perce Tribe being paid out to 44 tribes across the nation for mismanaged assets and natural resources held in trust by the government for the tribes.
Known as the “Salazar settlement,” it is separate from the Cobell lawsuit that the federal government settled for $3.4 billion.
The Salazar settlement was for mismanagement of assets and natural resources held by the tribes as a whole, and the $150 million settlement with the CSKT appears to be one of the largest.
“My trailer’s paid off as of today,” said Randy Milliron.
Members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council are still discussing what to do with the remaining balance of the $150 million, which has not automatically gone into the general fund. Among the options being considered are elder care, education, economic development, language and culture preservation, and land acquisition.
But some tribal members are actively campaigning to have the full amount distributed to individuals, and on Wednesday morning, as a long line snaked out of the tribally owned Eagle Bank in Polson, which issued the checks, and petitions to the Bureau of Indian Affairs circulated through the crowd.
“They come out of the bank and you can see the relief on their face. They haven’t felt that way in a long time,” said Revan Rogers, who wore a “100 percent” sticker, and by noon had gathered several hundred signatures supporting full dispersal of the settlement. “This actually helps the membership. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime windfall.”
While the council has made no decision on what to do with the money, Rogers said placing it into a general fund would be misguided, calling it a “black hole.” In June she organized a group called the People’s Voice, and hopes that with enough signatures the BIA will override the council’s resolution.
“It’s overwhelming. The people want their money,” she said. “This is a new beginning for them. It may be as simple as a new washer and dryer, and a refrigerator. But it’s a new beginning.”
Finley works as a certified nursing assistant for the tribe, and part of her job is driving elderly clients to medical appointments and physical therapy. But two months ago, her sister totaled the pickup truck she’d been driving, and since then she’s been relying on the CSKT Department of Human Resources Development’s shuttle system to transport her clients.
Finley said she favors distributing 75 percent of the settlement to tribal members, and investing the remainder into the tribal transportation system.
“Everybody uses it,” she said. “It’s an important service for tribal elders who need assistance with trips to the store and to the doctor’s office.”
On Facebook, Finley posted a top-12 list of the purchases and investments her friends and family members have planned with their share of the settlement.
“Cars, housing, furniture, savings, child care,” she said. “Someone I know already moved into a new apartment today. There’s been concern it’s going to be misspent, but I think we’re spending our money wisely.”
All through Polson and the Mission Valley, car dealers dropped prices to below $10,000 and vendors set out their wares in hopes of soliciting business.
“It’s going to be pretty crazy around here for the next three days,” Finley said.
Erica Shelby, facilitator of the Ksanka language summer camp in Elmo, already donated her money to the burgeoning program, which aims to teach younger generations how to speak the Kootenai language.
“We think there’s a direct correlation between the health of a community and its cultural awareness,” she said. “Languages don’t die in a healthy community.”
On Wednesday, Shelby turned her energy to registering tribal members to vote, and also visited with individuals about the background of the Salazar settlement.
An early proponent of the council’s plan to invest 50 percent of the settlement in tribal programs, she has since changed her stance.
“These people desperately need the money. They are always in desperation. They are always in crisis, and to put that on hold for a little bit, it helps a lot,” she said.
Shelby favors investing in elder care, education, language and culture, but when the council failed to draft a detailed blueprint for the spending, she changed her mind.
“We wanted the government to propose a clear plan for spending the money so that we could reflect and comment on it. Until they do that, I’ll be in favor of 100 percent,” she said. “I’m hearing a lot of practical people making practical decisions with their money.”
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 531-9745 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.