Nearly every tribe in the United States has been affected by the decisions of the Indian Claims Commission. The commission, and the claims court that took over its caseload when it shut its doors in 1979, heard more than 600 cases and paid out nearly $1.5 billion in awards.
The money almost
always represented a fraction of what had been lost, says attorney
Michael Lieder, the author of Wild Justice: The People of
Geronimo vs. the United States. Though several tribes
resisted the payment on principle, only two groups have refused the
money until the present day: the Sioux tribes, who are fighting for
the return of the Black Hills in South Dakota, and the Western
The Western Shoshone have fought over
their claims money for so long that the cash seems almost mythical.
But if Congress approves Senate Bill 958 this year, tribal members
will soon find some very real, very large checks in their
Some say the money will further
fragment their communities. Outside the tribal gymnasium on voting
day, a crowd of cash-payment opponents worriedly trades stories
from other reservations. "My sister was 18 years old when she got
money from the Paiute tribe," says 29-year-old Harold Whitney. "It
probably lasted her three or four months. She just bought a car and
"I heard that when Fort Hall had a
$7,000 per capita payment, the merchants downtown were giving out
shotguns and free toys with every purchase
"I heard that when Skull Valley got their
payment, the car dealers from Salt Lake brought their cars out to
the reservation ... By the end of the day, they'd sold so many that
they were writing receipts on toilet paper
It's true that the payments have been a
shock to some cash-poor tribal members, and many have been
swindled. On the other hand, says Lieder, "some have sent kids to
college with it, some have saved it, some have bought refrigerators
and cars that they never had before."
payments have been made directly to tribal members, says Lieder,
while others have been divided between individuals and the tribal
governments. Several governments have set up revolving-loan funds
for tribal members, and some have added land to their reservations.
The Mescalero Apaches of southern New Mexico used almost all of
their payment as seed money for a skiing and hunting
Since so many Western Shoshone live off
the reservation, the Western Shoshone Claims Steering Committee
opted for a per capita payment. To soften the impact of the
distribution, young tribal members will be paid in four annual
installments starting on their 18th birthday.
Committee leader Larry Piffero, whose family
plans to invest its claims money in real estate, is quick to
downplay the fears of the cash-payment opponents: "I think we're
more educated than that."