A November petition signed by nearly a quarter of Yakama tribal members threatening the recall of Tribal Council members over payment of a multimillion-dollar settlement from the federal government has been withdrawn, according to Tribal Council Chairman Harry Smiskin.
In a written response to a Yakima Herald-Republic story about the petition published Feb. 7, Smiskin said the Nov. 20 petition was informal and not valid under tribal law because the tribe doesn’t operate under a petition form of government.
Smiskin took issue with the story, and said the petition focused on how settlement money should be distributed rather than any recall of elected officials.
He said his office didn’t receive the petition, and accused organizers of going behind the Tribal Council and sending complaints to the tribe’s superintendent and federal officials in Washington, D.C.
“They never communicated with the Tribal Council,” Smiskin said last Thursday. “They never brought their complaints to me or this council.”
At issue is what is known as the Salazar settlement, in which 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.
In their petition, Yakama tribal members called for 80 percent of the settlement to be divided into individual payments to tribal members with the rest going to tribal government coffers. The petition was filed in the tribe’s General Council office Nov. 20.
The General Council is composed of four elected officials and all voting tribal members. The 14-member Tribal Council oversees the tribe’s daily operations.
The petition, signed by 2,729 out of 7,619 voting tribal members, said tribal members had been kept in the dark about settlement negotiations. They demanded payments by Christmas if a settlement had been reached or else the entire Tribal Council would be subject to recall.
A copy of the petition was forwarded to the Yakama Superintendent Guy Robbins, who then forwarded it to the U.S. Department of the Interior, according to a letter from Robbins to the Bureau of Indian Affairs regional office in Portland.
But Smiskin said the settlement is still pending, and that U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Hogan in Washington, D.C., has ordered that the negotiations remain confidential.
“We haven’t even got the money,” Smiskin said. “It isn’t even here.”
According to a tribal settlement document titled Information and Frequently Asked Questions and obtained by the Yakima Herald-Republic, a settlement of $188 million has been reached and approved by the Tribal Council but awaits final approval from federal authorities. That process that could take anywhere from six to 12 weeks or longer if there are any delays, the document said.
In an undated memo to tribal members obtained by the newspaper along with the petition, Smiskin explained the confidential nature of ongoing negotiations and said the settlement would be slowed if provisions about how the money should be distributed become part of the talks.
In his response to the Herald-Republic story, Smiskin said the history of the Salazar case shouldn’t be overlooked. In the case, the tribe only demands an accounting of how the federal government managed or mismanaged the Yakamas’ trust funds and assets. He said the federal government’s role as the tribe’s trustee has resulted in federal control of tribal business since the 19th century.
“And this constant interference by the federal government, in turn, had decimated our resources and cost our people hundreds of millions, if not billions in capital and revenue that was mismanaged, lost or otherwise poorly invested by our trustees,” he wrote.
He also said the tribal government is stable and composed of ethical elected officials who uphold the 1855 Yakama treaty.
“I want my Yakama people to know that the Yakama Nation elected officials are trying to do what is in the best interest of the enrolled membership and the tribal government when it comes to the settlements of the lawsuits involving the Yakama Nation,” he wrote.
· Phil Ferolito can be reached at 509-577-7749 or firstname.lastname@example.org.