Hoopa Valley Tribe Settles Lawsuit with United States
By KRISTAN KORNS, Two Rivers Tribune
The Hoopa Tribal Council voted unanimously on Thursday, Sept. 6, to settle the Tribe’s lawsuit against the United States for federal mismanagement of tribal trust funds and timber resources for a period of 80 years.
The Hoopa Valley Tribe is one of nearly 80 tribes who were originally part of the lawsuit filed in 2006, and is one of the last to settle. The Tribe will receive $49.2 million as part of the settlement.
The council authorized their attorney to sign off on the settlement agreement and to forward it to the U.S. Department of Justice for final approval.
Tribal Councilmember Ryan Jackson said that at that point, both parties would agree to dismiss the case and then the Tribe would receive the settlement.
“We’re requesting that it be sooner rather than later,” Jackson said. “It’s been long enough already from our perspective.”
Questions about how the money should be distributed were brought up almost immediately by members of the audience.
Danielle Vigil-Masten is the spokesperson for a group that she describes as a grassroots, ad hoc committee of Hoopa tribal members. She and around a dozen supporters were at Thursday’s council meeting.
“The Tribe sued on behalf of the people,” Vigil-Masten said. “And, now they don’t want to give it out.”
Vigil-Masten and her group brought a petition that she said was signed by more than 700 tribal members last winter when the settlement was still being negotiated.
The petition called for a referendum vote to divide 100 percent of the settlement among everyone on the tribal roll as of March 5, 2012.
Tribal Councilmember Margaret Mattz-Dickson said, “What about the newborns?”
Vigil-Masten said, “The petition had the March 5 date and it’s not fair for me to just change it.”
Jackson made a motion for the Council to consider the petition, but the motion failed with no second.
Tribal Council Vice Chairman, Byron Nelson Jr. said the money hadn’t been received yet.
“I think everyone is in agreement that the people ought to get their money,” Nelson said. “But at some point people need to trust the Council, because we’re bound by oath to look out for the best interests of the entire tribe.”
After the council meeting, Vigil-Masten said her group planned to do a formal petition through the election office.
“We only need 240 signatures to get on the ballot,” she said.
Nelson said that the Tribe’s attorneys were still exploring ways of doing a larger payout without jeopardizing people’s WIC and other benefits, such as veteran’s benefits.
“So far, they have a way to pay out $2,000 every three months, so that we’ll keep it below the level where it would interfere with subsidies that tribal members receive,” Nelson said.
On Monday, Sept. 10, Vigil-Masten and her group returned to the Neighborhood Facilities building. Around 30 people gathered on the lawn with picket signs.
The group also brought a draft petition calling for a special election. The draft petition calls for 100 percent distribution of the settlement monies to tribal members. The March 5, 2012 cutoff date had been removed.
Judy Bussell said she’s not happy with the Council.
“We have over 700 signatures and they didn’t recognize our petition that we already signed,” Bussell said. “We need a change.”
Tribal Councilmembers Hayley Hutt and Ryan Jackson approached and spoke with the group.
Jackson said it is getting more difficult to fund programs like the monthly senior per-capita payments and tribal higher education scholarships.
Hutt said “We swore an oath to consider the whole tribe. Personally, I think a commitment of 65 percent to tribal members and investing 35 percent for our future is the way to go.”
Vigil-Masten, along with Sharon Branham and Viva Campbell, turned in their draft petition for a special election. Their draft will have to be reviewed by the Tribal Election Board before they can start gathering signatures on the official petition.
The Tribal Election Board’s next meeting is on Thursday, and the ad hoc committee said that they hope to be gathering signatures by sometime next week.
If the petition is signed by one third of the number of voters who participated in the last election, a special election would be held within 45 days to vote on the group’s proposal. 720 people voted in the last election, which means 240 signatures would be needed.
Jackson said “We’re here as the elected representatives of the people. If they say this is what they want, then that’s what we’ll do.”
Hoopa Tribal Chairman Leonard Masten Jr., told the TRT that he wanted to be sure that every tribal member was involved in deciding what to do.
“There’s nothing wrong with a petition. I have no problem with that,” Masten said. “What I have a problem with is 300 to 400 people dictating what the other 3,000 members want.”
Masten said that he is sending an information letter out to the entire membership as soon as the settlement funds have been deposited. He said he is just one voice, but there are things he’d like to see done for the tribe’s future.
“I’d like to make sure the elders’ payments are secure, and I want to see our kids who want to go to school and get an education be able to do so,” Masten said.
The Hoopa Tribal Council hasn’t voted yet, and there is no official position on the issue. Masten said there will be public hearings and a process.
“Our job is to protect this place and make it better for our people. We’re only going to have one shot at this,” Masten said. “If we elected officials don’t take the opportunity to secure something for our people, then we’re not doing our job.”
A Campbell Field district meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 11 at 6 pm at the tribal offices in Hoopa.