TOPPENISH, Wash. — More than 2,700 Yakama tribal members have signed a petition calling for the ouster of the entire 14-member Tribal Council, claiming they’ve been kept in the dark over what they say is a multi-million dollar settlement between the tribe and the federal government.
Known as the Salazar settlement, the federal government has agreed to give 41 tribes across the country $1 billion to settle a series of lawsuits accusing the federal government of mismanaging tribal resources such as timber, minerals and other assets held in federal trust.
Tribes are receiving anywhere from thousands to hundreds of millions of dollars, and the money is causing an uproar among some tribal members over how the settlement money should be distributed. Some argue that all the money should be divided into equal payments to tribal members.
Members of the Colville tribe, for example, are trying to oust their entire governmental council in a dispute over how its $193 million settlement should be disbursed. The funds were subsequently split between payments to individual members and to the tribal government.
Now the Yakamas are going through a similar debate.
Members on Wednesday filed into the tribe’s General Council meeting, where tribal members vote on major decisions and elect tribal leaders. Only Yakamas are allowed into the meeting, and its outcome wasn’t available late Wednesday.
According to the petition signed by 2,729 Yakamas, the Tribal Council is not informing members of settlement negotiations.
Tribal leaders, however, said in a statement issued to members that the negotiations are confidential between tribal leaders and the federal government.
Tribal member Kyle Spencer said the fear is that tribal leaders will use part of the settlement to pay the state some $20 million allegedly owed in unpaid fuel taxes.
Yakama tribal leaders did not immediately return phone calls Wednesday night seeking comment.
Under an agreement with the state, tribal fuel station owners only pay a portion of the state tax on bulk fuel, but must submit required audits of sales to determine whether additional fuel taxes are owed.
Tribal station owners failed to submit audits of sales for several years, and now the state is suing the tribe in federal court for the unpaid amount.
Spencer said tribal station owners, not the tribal government, should be responsible for the unpaid fuel taxes.
He said there was also a push by some influential tribal members to influence voters to oust General Council officers rather than the Tribal Council in hopes of halting the recall.
While the Tribal Council oversees daily operations of the 10,000-member tribe, the General Council is made up of all voting tribal members and four elected officers.
• Phil Ferolito can be reached at 509-577-7749 or firstname.lastname@example.org.