The sight was so unusual we stopped our meeting to stare: men in helmets and riot gear, carrying semi-automatic weapons, were surrounding a bank in Lander, Wyoming, on a Wednesday in late April. As we sipped our chai lattes from the coffee shop across the street, we watched as the armed men escorted a guy pushing a laundry cart towards the back entrance of the bank. It didn’t seem to be a robbery; the men were in fact police officers called to escort an armored truck delivering millions of dollars in cash to banks around this small central Wyoming town.
The cash came from the U.S. Treasury and was part of a big settlement between the federal government and the two tribes that share the nearby Wind River Reservation: the Northern Arapaho and the Eastern Shoshone. In 1977, the two tribes sued the feds over mismanagement of their mineral rights. They argued the government didn’t negotiate a fair price for oil and gas leases and didn’t follow-up to make sure companies were actually paying the proper amount in royalties.
The feds paid out a series of smaller settlements to the tribes over the years, but decided to wrap up the rest of the money in a single $157 million payout. “This is the first time people have gotten a big chunk,” said Harry Sachse, one of the lawyers who filed the case on behalf of the Eastern Shoshone.
When Sachse helped file the case 37 years ago, he was a young, civil-rights minded lawyer coming off a stint at the Solicitor General’s office in which he’d tried, and won, a number of Indian rights cases at the Supreme Court. One of Sachse’s co-workers was a lawyer named Marvin Sonosky, a man known for his epic legal fights on behalf of Indian tribes. Sonosky worked pro-bono for 24 years to get the United States to return the Black Hills in South Dakota to the Sioux, an effort that culminated in the 1980 Supreme Court decision to award the Sioux $106 million, “more than twice as large as any previous award on an Indian claim,” according to The New York Times.
Sonosky was tipped off to the government’s mismanagement of mineral rights on the Wind River Reservation when the Eastern Shoshone hired his firm to draft new leases with oil and gas companies in the 1970s. “The government was trusting the oil companies for everything,” Sachse recalled, “and Marvin didn’t trust them at all.”
Sachse lost track of Shoshone and Arapaho vs. United States when, a few years later, the tribe didn’t renew its contract with his firm, Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry LLC. Twenty-two years later the Shoshone hired the firm again, and Sachse was shocked to find the case was still open. He dove back into it, and last year, got the federal government to settle the case. “They’re pretty happy with the amount of money they won,” he said of the Eastern Shoshone tribal members he dealt with.
Shoshone and Arapaho vs. United States isn’t the first time Indians have gotten checks from the feds for mismanaging their resources. Earlier this winter, the second set of payments from the massive Cobell Settlement arrived on the Wind River Reservation. In that settlement, landowners in over 150 different tribes received money—between $1,000 and $2,000 each. And the majority of the settlement went toward buying back land fractionated among the original owners’ heirs and returning it to the tribes.
Shoshone and Arapaho, however, splits 85 percent of the total settlement money up between just two tribes, and every enrolled member gets a cut. Arapahos get just over $6,000, while every Shoshone will see around $15,000 (there are more Arapaho than Shoshone, so each Arapaho gets less money). The remaining 15 percent goes into a $10 million fund for the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho to use to clean up pollution from oil and gas companies.
“You can’t buy a used car in town,” Jim Davis, the executive director of the Riverton Chamber of Commerce, told me when I asked about the economic impact of the settlement on surrounding towns. Some sellers were holding onto their vehicles, waiting for newly paid buyers from the reservation.
Casper Star-Tribune reporter Benjamin Storrow was in Riverton and Lander on April 23, as the Arapaho began receiving their checks. He reported that while many people welcomed the cash, others worried it could lead to an increase in crime as thieves targeted Native Americans walking around with large sums of cash in their pockets. Indeed, the Lander police department stepped up its presence in town that week to protect people cashing some or all of their checks.
Others worried that people would spend all of the cash at once. "People need to be smart and budget their money," Randee Iron Cloud told Storrow as she cashed her check at the Atlantic City Federal Credit Union in Lander. "They need to think about the needs of the kids above all else."
To that end, the Northern Arapaho Business Council is encouraging people who don’t have bank accounts to set one up and avoid check-cashing fees. In towns like Lander and Riverton, those fees can be as much as three percent. And the Eastern Shoshone, whose checks have been delayed by problems within their business council, have been working with a capital management firm to encourage people to use the pay-out to set up an education trust funds for their kids. According to Wyoming Public Media, there’s even a dedicated phone line for Eastern Shoshone tribal members at an investment firm in Kansas City where people can ask questions about setting up the funds.
It’s hard to ensure that the recent settlement has a lasting economic impact on the Wind River Reservation because there are so few businesses on the reservation. While it was only tribal members who received cash, most of the places they spent it – used car dealerships, supermarkets – are off reservation and owned by non-natives (except, of course, the Wind River Hotel and Casino, owned by the Northern Arapahos).
“The biggest beneficiaries are Lander and Riverton,” Darwin St. Clair Jr., chairman of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council, told The Casper Star-Tribune after the first round of Cobell settlement checks came out last year. “It’s nice to have some extra cash. But this isn’t a life-changer.”
Emily Guerin is a correspondent for High Country News. She tweets @guerinemily.