Ambitious deal aims to heal two tribes' rift

By David Whitney -- Bee Washington Bureau - (Published March 28, 2004)


WASHINGTON - In the second attempt since 1988 to bring lasting peace between two Indian tribes in the northwestern corner of California, Congress will soon be asked to consider adding more than 370 square miles of federal and private lands to the fractured, patchwork reservation of the Yurok Tribe.


At stake in the proposal Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, hopes to introduce in Congress next month are more than 155,000 acres of the Six Rivers National Forest, 1,700 acres of the Redwoods National Park, and 67,000 acres of private land largely owned by Simpson Lumber Co. The proposal is an uncertain effort to create parity between the Yurok and the neighboring Hoopa Valley Tribe.


In addition, the plan also calls for the roughly $100 million in federal spending to upgrade roads and bridges, water treatment systems, power lines, housing, tribal centers and economic development programs. That doesn't include the money it would take to buy the Simpson Lumber land.


If the deal is approved, the Yurok Tribe would gain forest lands capable of sustained production of 11 million board-feet of timber a year, and tourism facilities that could draw on access to tribally owned redwood forests and Klamath River recreation.


"Our intention here is to provide for an adequate land base for the Yurok Tribe," said executive director Troy Fletcher. "Eighty percent of the reservation is now without electricity or telephones. We have the only one-lane highway in the state. Pretty much the things people take for granted we don't have. We have a tremendous amount of need."


While there is agreement that something more needs to be tried to bring the Hoopa and Yurok tribes together, the federal assistance sought by the deal for the 4,700-member Yurok Tribe has skeptics among its dearest advocates.


"I don't think this is going to be easy," Thompson said. "But this situation has got to be fixed. Just because this will be tough is no reason to let this situation fester."


"They are shooting pretty high," said Thomas Schlosser, the Hoopa tribe's longtime lawyer. "Whether this is doable remains to be seen."


The proposal is the most ambitious effort yet to settle differences between the Yurok and Hoopa tribes over the division of logging revenues dating back to the 1950s. Even if the Yuroks' tribal restoration bill is approved, the underlying money fight between the two tribes will remain for Congress to fix another day.


Until 1988, the two tribes shared the same reservation, and it includes some of the most spectacular country in the state. The Hoopa's traditional territory was along the Trinity River and the Yurok lived along the Klamath River, from its confluence with the Trinity to the Pacific Ocean.


When the federal government disbursed proceeds from aggressive logging on the Hoopa's traditional grounds, the money went to Hoopa tribal members. The unorganized Yuroks filed suit, and the tensions began to escalate.


The 1988 division of the reservation was part of Congress' first effort to quell the bad blood. The Yuroks' traditional lands became a separate reservation for them, and they received help to organize a tribal government. They also were promised half of a $70 million pot of escrowed logging proceeds for economic development if they refrained from further lawsuits.


But the new tribe came to believe that it had not been treated fairly in that bargain. The 58,000-acre reservation it received was now largely owned by non-Indians who, over the course of many generations and under discredited federal Indian policy, had bought for a pittance Yurok lands where once stood magnificent stands of giant redwoods.


The Klamath River salmon runs that Congress thought would become the backbone of an economy for the young Yurok Tribe instead turned into a disaster as upstream agriculture claimed more and more water from the Klamath and once-teeming salmon runs dwindled as stocks landed on the endangered species list.


So the Yurok sued, losing their access to the $35 million economic development fund while the Hoopa tribe converted its $35 million entitlement under the 1988 settlement into new opportunities for prosperity.


The Yurok share of the fund has grown to more than $70 million, and the Interior Department in 2001 was called upon to declare what it thought should be done with it. Not surprisingly, both tribes want the money for themselves.


The department's report was presented at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing that was so acrimonious that, at the conclusion, tribal leaders were so angry they refused to shake hands.


In an effort to put an end to the feuding, the committee urged the involvement of a mediator to help the two tribes wade through their differences. The legislation Thompson will introduce is the product of that yearlong mediation process.


Schlosser said the involvement of a professional mediator gave the tribes a neutral setting to "listen to each other." And what became abundantly clear, he said, is that until the Yurok Tribe's feeling that it has been "victimized" by the Hoopa and the federal government is remedied, there is little chance of the two tribes achieving peace.


"Until the Yurok Tribe gets some of their traditional land back, they are not going to feel right with the world," he said. "It is certainly in the interest of the Hoopa that the Yurok be successful in this legislation."


Authorizing as much money as the Yuroks are seeking will be difficult on Capitol Hill, given the efforts to trim spending and control skyrocketing deficits.

About the Writer

The Bee's David Whitney can be reached at (202) 383-0004 or