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 Shoshone.
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 mailboxes.
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 crashed it."
"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."
Some 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 resort.
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."
Copyright © 2002 HCN and Michelle Nijhuis