Yurok Tribal Members Push for Full Payout of Settlement Funds
By KRISTAN KORNS, Two Rivers Tribune
James Dunlap and Frank McCovey were surrounded by a small crowd in front of Lucky Bear Casino in Hoopa on Wednesday, Jan. 16, as they gathered signatures from Yurok registered voters.
“We have groups of people in Crescent City, Klamath, Eureka, Orleans, Weitchpec, and Willow Creek getting people to sign our petition,” Dunlap said.
The petition calls for a vote on whether or not 100 percent of the settlement funds from the Nez Perce Tribe, et al. v. Salazar lawsuit should be paid out to Yurok tribal members after attorney fees are paid.
The Yurok Tribe received $27.5 million from the U.S. Government in a settlement that was finalized on Friday, Jan. 4, 2013.
The Yurok Tribe is one of dozens of tribes that sued the U.S. Government because of decades of mismanagement of tribal funds and proceeds from timber and other resources.
Under a proposal put forward by the Yurok Tribal Council, $17.4 million (63 percent) of the settlement funds would be paid out to the tribal membership and the remaining $10.1 million (37 percent) would be used for attorney fees and to finance a resort and casino.
Yurok Tribal Chairman Thomas O’Rourke Sr. said, “This plan is designed to balance the present needs of the tribal membership and our obligation to create a brighter future for generations of Yurok people.”
Dunlap criticized the casino plan.
“They’re saying that this hotel casino is going to be the future and is going to solve all these problems,” Dunlap said. “But Harvey’s and Harrah’s came in to do a casino assessment when we first became a tribe, and they concluded that there’s not a large enough population to sustain it.”
Dunlap and his supporters originally started their petition for a 100 percent settlement payout in the first week of January. They collected over 600 signatures, before it was rejected by the tribe’s legal department.
“They ruled it invalid because it didn’t have the right format,” Dunlap said.
The group started over with a new petition, with people collecting signatures from Yurok tribal members throughout the area. They hope to have the new petition reviewed by the Election Board on Tuesday, Jan.15.
McCovey said, “What they’re doing now, to try and stop it, is scandalous.”
Dunlap and McCovey paused and gathered signatures from Yurok voters who’d heard about the petition through word of mouth, text messages, or Facebook.
Flo White joked as she signed the petition, “I’m going to die pretty soon. I might as well get some money out of them.”
“They invalidated the first petition and now the Council is pushing through a yes or no vote on a 60 percent payout,” Dunlap said. “It’s an end run around the petition and the will of the people.”
The Yurok Tribal Council proposed distributing $4,500 to each tribal member 60 and older, $3,500 to members 18 to 59 years old, and $1,000 deposited into trust accounts of members under 18.
Yurok tribal members who are registered to vote can vote either yes or no, and the ballot has to be received by the Elections Board by Wednesday, Feb. 20.
O’Rourke said, “The Tribal Council carefully considered this decision, which has the potential to change the course of Yurok history.”
The Yurok Tribal Council issued a press release stating the referendum would, “allocate funds won in the $27.5 million settlement in a way that addresses both the immediate needs of the Tribal Membership and its obligation to provide well-paying employment for Yurok people.”
McCovey said didn’t think the casino plan would work, and he thought it would be a waste of money.
“The tribe has gathered up and spent over $500 million,” McCovey said. “Do you want to give them millions more to fritter away?”