NESPELEM The lawsuit filed by Colville tribal members seeking distribution of the remaining half of a $193 million federal court settlement was dismissed last week.
Chief Judge Cynthia Ann Jordan ruled the Colville Tribal Court lacks jurisdiction over the matter, citing tribal law, sovereign immunity and the separation of powers between the tribe’s legislative and judiciary branches. Jordan ordered the suit, Yvonne L. Swan and Colville Members for Justice v. Colville Business Council, to be dismissed.
“I had hoped that the court would see it our way, but I was disappointed of course,” Swan said. “I told the court more than once that it’s a matter of survival for the people. A lot of people are upset about it and rightfully so.”
Swan said the recession has taken its toll on tribal members, who are having a hard time paying bills and putting food on their tables.
She said she feels particularly bad for tribal members who live off the reservation, because they’re too far away to see any benefits of the money spent.
Colville Tribal Chairman Michael O. Finley said he recognizes people are going through a “very difficult time,” he said.
“The Colville Business Council understands and appreciates the feelings and desires of the plaintiffs in this case,” he said. “We live in the same economically depressed communities as the plaintiffs. We know how things are. Our oath and duty requires us to work towards solutions for these problems.”
Finley said money from the federal settlement has presented the tribe with a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to develop cures rather than apply bandages as we have, out of necessity, become accustomed to.”
The next step has yet to be decided for Swan and the Colville Members for Justice, a group of more than 2,700 tribal members who signed a petition pushing for the full distribution of the Salazar settlement.
“It’s not over,” Swan said. “We can appeal. And that’s a debatable issue among us. Some don’t feel like we’ll be treated any more fairly and some think that it’s a waste of time. Others think we may have to go that route before we go federal. We’re not giving up. Not by any means.”
Finley said the contentiousness that has surrounded the settlement money had made it impossible to feel like the case could have a positive outcome.
However, “we trust that our grandchildren and their grandchildren will benefit from the court’s decision,” he said.
Finley said the Colville Business Council now has the “tremendous job” of implementing the “Qwam Qwmpt” plan, which allows funding for a tribal language endowment, land purchases, health and wellness, a forest restoration plan and a community development plan.
The $193 million settlement was awarded to the Colville Tribes in February 2012 for the federal government’s mismanagement of tribal trust assets, including timberland. Of 70 settlements reached between tribes and the federal government over mismanagement in recent years, the Colville tribes’ was the second largest.
Initially, the council authorized disbursing 20 percent of the settlement to tribal members, as required in the settlement.
A petition to the council, spearheaded by Joanne Sanchez, led to a vote of whether or not to release an additional 30 percent of the settlement to tribal members. The referendum sparked a record high voter turnout, with 92.5 percent voting for the council to release the additional funds.
By October 2012, half of the $193 million — or about $10,180 apiece for the tribe’s estimated 9,500 members — had been disbursed.
In December 2012, a movement to push the council to disburse the remainder of the settlement began.
“This is not income they (the business council) can squander at will,” Swan said. “It’s like being misrepresented and mistreated all over again. We’ve been going through this for a year and a half, trying to get correct information, trying to get them to listen... The worst crime any one person in that elected position can commit is a crime against the people. That is really not acceptable.”
Last week’s dismissal came after an initial hearing on the lawsuit Aug. 21.