This month, a federal claims court judge approved a settlement agreement that may finally lay to rest the interminably long Jessie Short case, in which thousands of mainly Yurok Tribe members are owed money stemming from a 50-year-old lawsuit.
Now, almost all that's left is the check-cutting -- but that will come after attorneys finish sifting through hundreds of bankers' boxes to verify who has or hasn't been paid yet, says Yurok Tribal Attorney John Corbett. Among those still owed are Humboldt County Supervisor Ryan Sundberg and other heirs of folks who died waiting for their checks.
The settlement OK'd by the judge on April 3 was between Citibank and the plaintiffs in "Jessie Short, et al, v. The United States," over a dispute that arose sometime in the last decade (we'll get to that in a bit). But the case itself was filed in 1963 by Jessie Short, a Yurok Indian, and several thousand other primarily Yurok people who said they had been denied their share of revenues from timber sales from the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation.
At the time, the Yurok people had shared the reservation with the Hupa people -- in fact, the reservation was 70 percent Yurok and 30 percent Hupa, according to legal documents in the case. The Hupa lived on what was called the Hoopa Square, the Hupa's original, 12-square-mile reservation established in 1864, where all the timber was cut. The Yurok primarily lived on a strip of land, a mile wide on each side of the Klamath River, which extended from the square to the ocean and had been added to the Hoopa Valley Reservation in 1891. That strip of land was called "the addition."
Since 1955, the federal government had been making annual timber payments to each person officially enrolled as a member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe -- an organization that had formed in 1950 and excluded people who lived on the addition. Those addition dwellers were Jessie Short and his fellow plaintiffs.
In 1988, under the Hoopa-Yurok Settlement Agreement, the square and the addition were separated legally from each other into two reservations, and the Yurok Tribe formed its own government.
It wasn't until 1993 that the Short lawsuit was finally -- sort of finally -- settled, says Corbett, with about 2,000 plaintiffs being awarded damages and interest. A judgment trust was created, and since then checks have trickled out to the plaintiffs or their heirs. There have been 42 disbursements of payments so far. Now three more payment distributions are left.
About $1.5 million-- the 43rd and 44th disbursements combined -- will be divvied up among people who have only received one of their two promised checks so far.
And $1.9 million -- the 45th disbursement -- will be divided among people who were supposed to receive checks back in 1996 and 1997 but said they never got them. That's the Citibank dispute -- the bank says it distributed the checks. But it couldn't produce proof of canceled checks, says Corbett. The bank agreed to settle. Because there's not enough money left in the trust -- the 1996 and 1997 funds are gone -- the beneficiaries will share about half of what had been owed them, comprised of what's left in the fund plus $1 million thrown into the pot by Citibank "to cover any alleged wrongdoing in recordkeeping in its actions as trustee," says Corbett.
It's one of the longest running cases in federal claims court. The plaintiffs have had several different attorneys. Corbett's only been on the case three years. In the recent legal notice to yet-to-be paid beneficiaries, explaining that a judge would soon hear their case, he signed off by telling them that their "50 years of patience" was much appreciated.
The number of people who will get paid, and therefore what they'll receive, is still being determined.
"We're still going through boxes of bank records and having people come up to us saying, ‘No, I was paid already,'" Corbett said.
Among the certain payees will be Ryan Sundberg and his mom, Cheryl Sundberg-Grooms. Sundberg-Grooms' husband at the time, Marshall (Ryan Sundberg's dad), was one of the original plaintiffs in the case. He died in 1990, before any checks had been sent out.
"I remember my parents talking about it," Sundberg said. "It was always a long-running joke. My dad would say, 'Well, when I get my Indian money ...' It took so long, it was forever -- years and years."
Sundberg said he thinks he and his mom will each get about $1,000. He doesn't know what happened back in 1996 and 1997, except that after his dad died, he said, things got chaotic. Some checks went out to his siblings, he said, because they've been paid. And he was just a kid.
He said his mom, hearing she had a check coming, called it "a nice surprise."