WILLOW BELDEN: In 2012, the tribes who share the Wind River Indian Reservation, the Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapaho Tribes, came to a settlement with the federal government for a mineral royalties mismanagement case dating back to the 1970’s. The federal government has finally released the money from the settlement, and tribal members on Wind River are anxiously awaiting their checks. Wyoming Public Radio’s Irina Zhorov joins us to talk about the settlement and what it means to the Wind River Community.
To start, could you tell us what this settlement is all about.
IRINA ZHOROV: Yeah. So, in 1979 both the Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapaho Tribes filed suit against the federal government for mismanagement of their natural resources. The United States is a trustee for the tribes, which means it’s responsible for managing Indian lands held “in trust” by the federal government. What the suit alleged was that the U.S. government failed in its role as guardian of the tribes’ lands, that the government failed to collect the proper money for extraction of things like sand and gravel, and oil and gas, and, further, that the government failed to properly manage what money it did collect.
There was a whole litany of complaints in the suit and so it was split up into several different parts. Sand and gravel, like I mentioned, was one. For oil and gas there were claims ranging from undervaluing minerals, to not terminating leases that weren’t producing, to failure to collect rental payments and much more. There were also claims against the government for not investing the money they did collect properly, improper spending of that money and things like that. In addition, that development, for which the tribes were not correctly compensated, left environmental degradation in its wake and the tribes included that in the suit, as well.
What happened was the judge in the Court of Federal Claims started going through the case and trying to resolve it one issue at a time. So the tribes actually received several smaller settlements over the years as the judge ticked off the list of complaints and tried to resolve each one. But since the list of missteps by the federal government was quite lengthy the feds finally decided it would be easier to settle everything in one go, in what’s called a global settlement, and proposed that approach to the tribes. After some negotiation, the tribes and U.S. government came to a dollar amount. So what the tribes are getting now, $157 million, is the final resolution to this suit that started 35 years ago.
BELDEN: That’s a pretty significant amount of money. How is it being distributed?
ZHOROV: The tribes share the reservation so the money is being split evenly between the tribes. But since there are over twice as many Arapaho tribal members as there are Shoshone tribal members, each individual Shoshone will get about double the money that each individual Arapaho receives. So the Arapahos are getting just over $6,000 per person and the Shoshones are each getting around $15,000. And this settlement is also interesting because every enrolled tribal member gets a check. It’s not just for certain people named in the suit, but literally every enrolled member, including children.
BELDEN: So how big a deal is this for the community?
ZHOROV: Well, the Wind River Reservation has high rates of poverty and high unemployment so as you can imagine the money will definitely help a lot of people. Especially in households with several family members all receiving payment, that could make a big difference in the available cash. Then you also have to think about businesses in the area. I mean, that’s an influx of over $100 million and a lot of that money will likely go to local businesses.
I spoke to an Eastern Shoshone tribal member named Caroline Shoyo, who said she plans to pay off her credit cards and then put the rest into savings. She said people are planning to use the money to get things done that they may not be able to otherwise.
CAROLINE SHOYO: Of course people are probably going to get a car or two, I know one person is going to use it for a house payment, another is going to use it to pay for their house that they got to get the utilities hooked up. You know, car repairs, someone’s going to put in in the bank and sit on it.
ZHOROV: She’s a one-person household, but said it’ll still be a nice boost.
SHOYO: Right now I live pretty much paycheck to paycheck and I worked almost all my life, and it’ll just give me a little something to put in the bank and just have that little something of a financial cushion.
ZHOROV: Some people, like the Chairman of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council, Darwin St. Clair, Jr. think the money has the potential to be more than just a boost, though.
DARWIN ST. CLAIR JR.: What I’m really hoping and what I foresee is that it’ll be an opportunity to make some changes and have some things that’ll potentially be life changing.
BELDEN: Life changing. How so?
ZHOROV: Well the Eastern Shoshone Tribe has invited the firm that advises the tribe on finances to come do a workshop with interested participants on opening bank accounts, on investing the money, and prioritizing spending. About 150 people showed up to this workshop and they do plan to host another one this summer. I spoke to Jennifer Nicholson, President of Nicholson Capital Management, who the tribe has been working with, and she said for kids especially the money really could be a game changer.
JENNIFER NICHOLSON: So every child will get one of these checks and hopefully that money can be turned around and put into some kind of an educational fund, and over time, if they’re fairly young, that could completely pay for their education. That is huge, that is just huge for those children. And we’ve had a lot of feedback that for the checks going to those children that is exactly what they want to do, to put that away.
ZHOROV: She worked with American Century Investment in Kansas City and they’ve actually set up a dedicated phone line for Eastern Shoshone tribal members. They can call, ask question, request investing help, set up the 529 education plans for their kids and all that.
And both tribes have encouraged members without bank accounts to open one. St. Clair estimates that about half of all Shoshone tribal members don’t have a bank account. I spoke to one young woman, Shiloh Stevens-Plascencia, who actually has 4 accounts, but she said talking to interested tribal members about opening and managing accounts could be a great help.
SHILOH STEVENS-PLASCENCIA: There’s a lot of older people that don’t have accounts, too. Some people still put money in their mattresses and stuff like that. It’s kind of, a lot of young people that I know, that are my age, had bank accounts but they overspent or they didn’t know that what they put into their account is what they can spend and a lot of them ended up having to pay back the bank because they overtook money, and overdrawed….
BELDEN: I understand some of the settlement money is also going towards government and things like that?
ZHOROV: That’s right. 15-percent goes to the tribal governments. And also, I mentioned earlier that environmental damage by oil and gas companies was one of the claims in the original suit. The settlement acknowledges that environmental harm. I talked to Northern Arapaho spokesman Mark Howell about how that works.
MARK HOWELL: The settlement requires $10 million to be set aside basically off the top to be utilized by the tribes for environmental work on the reservation. And that entire $10 million, how that is spent, is entirely at the discretion of the tribes.
ZHOROV: Presumably that will go through the Wind River Environmental Quality Commission, the tribal environmental agency, but it’s unclear for now what will be done with it.
BELDEN: That was Wyoming Public Radio’s Irina Zhorov talking about a big settlement that’s going to be distributed to Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribal members. Thank you, Irina.
ZHOROV: Thanks, Willow.