Tribal warfare between Hoopa and Yurok go on and on

western news

By DAVID WHITNEY

Monday, March 26, 2007

 

"Here we go again," said the tribe's longtime attorney, Thomas Schlosser. "The only thing the Interior Department has accomplished here is to create another round of litigation."

            Just when it seemed like a longstanding battle between two Northern California tribes couldn't be any more convoluted, the U.S. Department of Interior has issued a ruling adding a new layer to the mess.

            Not only did the ruling reverse what had been the longstanding position of the Interior Department in a heated dispute between the Hoopa Valley Tribe and the Yurok Tribe over more than $90 million, but it resolved nothing.

            Instead, the decision appears to have spawned a new legal battle that, in one way or another, has been raging for 50 years, with two trips to the U.S. Supreme Court and many others to Capitol Hill.

            At issue is a pot of money from logging on the Hoopa Valley Reservation back when Hudson was still making cars. That dispute spawned a lawsuit that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, after which Congress passed a peace-making settlement act championed by former Sen. Alan Cranston, D-Calif.

            The 1988 settlement act divided the reservation, which until then both tribes had shared for more than a century. It also set up a $65 million settlement fund, using escrowed timber money, which would go equally to the two tribes if they agreed not to challenge the act in court.

            The Hoopa signed a waiver of their right to sue and took their cut in 1991. The Yurok tribe filed a lawsuit challenging the settlement. The lawsuit finally ran its course in 2001 when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review lower court rulings against the Yurok.

            The end of the lawsuit merely thrust the fight over the money into the lap of the Interior Department.

            The Yurok said they had signed a "conditional waiver" that became final when the Supreme Court rejected their lawsuit. The money, now amounting to about $90 million even after the Hoopa had taken their $34 million slice, should go to them, the Yurok said.

            The Hoopa said the Yurok clearly weren't entitled to the money because they had done exactly what the settlement act's incentives were aimed at preventing.

            When the Senate Indian Affairs Committee held a hearing on the dispute in 2002, Interior Department officials said they were in a quandary over what to do with the settlement money. But they felt it should not go to the Yurok, who clearly violated the terms of the settlement by filing suit. The department pleaded for "further instruction" from Congress.

            But Congress didn't want to decide between the two tribes, either.

            Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and the state's two Democratic senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, wrote the Interior Department in 2005, raising a series of questions, including one asking why the Interior Department couldn't just decide this on its own.

            The Interior Department's answer came earlier this month in a letter to the two tribes. To the utter shock of the Hoopa, Interior said all the money should go to the Yurok.

            What changed?

            Ross Swimmer, special trustee for American Indians, said the Yurok are now willing to sign the unconditional waiver that the act required for the tribe to receive its share of the proceeds. There was no time limit on when the waiver must be signed, Swimmer noted.

            The Yurok called the Interior Department's new position "monumental."

            "With this issue finally resolved, Yurok and Hoopa can put our differences aside," Yurok tribal chair Maria Tripp said in a statement.

            The Hoopa responded last week by launching a new round of appeals.

            In its filing with the Interior Department's Board of Indian Appeals, the Hoopa called the department's about-face "absurd and unfair" and politically inspired.

            "Here we go again," said the tribe's longtime attorney, Thomas Schlosser. "The only thing the Interior Department has accomplished here is to create another round of litigation."