Money is often on the minds of the Yurok Indians, but that's usually because there isn't enough of it to go around. In addition to being California's largest tribe, it is also one of the state's poorest. And with the tribe's natural resources, once abundant, now facing an uncertain future, the Yurok can't just wait for money to drop into their lap.
Or at least, that's the way it seemed until this past spring, when a large sum of money did just that. In April the tribe was paid $92.6 million by the Department of the Interior. The money, known as the Yurok Trust Fund, came as the result of a 1988 act of Congress that established the Yurok reservation and also stipulated that payment be made to the tribe for the pre-1988 sale of timber on their land. But in order to access the money, which has been accruing interest for almost two decades now, the tribe had to agree not to sue the federal government in regards to the 1988 law. That concession was made just recently.
Now the question remains: What should the tribe do with all that money? At a meeting for Yurok tribal members only, held this past weekend in Eureka (additional meetings were held elsewhere in and out of the county), a large contingent of people insisted that the Yurok Trust Fund be distributed in its entirety to the tribe's 5,100 members. That has some worried that this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest in the tribe's future will be lost.
Stephanie McQuillen, who is running for the South District seat of the Yurok tribal council -- the primaries will be held next month, the general election in November -- said of the Eureka meeting: "People were energized and eager to have their voices heard that they wanted 100 percent per capita on the ballot. A smaller portion was more solution-focused for coming up with plans that would meet the needs of the entire tribe."
It's that smaller portion that forward-looking tribal members are counting on this fall, when the final proposal for what to do with the Yurok Trust Fund will come to a vote.
As it stands, there are seven proposals on the table. Tribal members have been asked to fill out an opinion poll and select the plan they think best. In turn, the tribal council will use that information to draft a final proposal to be voted on in November. One hundred percent per capita distribution is not one of the seven options, but one plan would distribute 90 percent of the money to tribal members and invest 10 percent of it. The other proposals are much more conservative, although all of them include some portion of per capita distribution.
Sid Nix, a tribal council member from Weitchpec, has proposed a plan that would invest 70 percent of the $92 million. Tribal programs would be funded from interest alone.
Nix, who attended all of the recent meetings, said that the majority of people who showed up were in favor of investing some amount of the money. The question is: How much? It comes down to a matter of principles, Nix said. "People are living day to day on the reservation, going without ... Being a member of a tribe you look out for each other. You look out for the less fortunate people."
That theme was echoed by others. "To keep together as a tribe we have to be tribal," said Yurok elder Allen McCovey. He also pointed out that the lump sum to be doled out if 90 percent of the funds are distributed per capita -- around $15,000 -- hardly constitutes a windfall. "You can't even get a good car for that."
One problem, according to McCovey is that some tribal members are uneasy about leaving so much money in the tribal coffers. "There is a lot of mistrust about, if they do leave it in there, how it will be handled," he said. Another concern among some tribal members living off the reservation is the feeling that they don't benefit from tribal services but would benefit if the money were distributed to them directly.
Still, McCovey, who is in favor of investing half of the $92 million and distributing the rest, is optimistic that people will realize the benefits of investment over 100 percent per capita distribution before it's too late. His faith remains with his people. "We've been here for 10,000 years and I can't see greed breaking us up," he said.