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Murky finances rankle many Yakama Nation members

Toppenish, Washington (AP) 11-07

A casino, sawmill and other businesses owned by the Yakama Nation are being questioned about their finances as some tribal members seek a greater share of the profits.

Until recently, each man, woman and child in the roughly 10,000-member tribe received $100 per month as their share of the revenue from tribal businesses. But monthly payments were cut nearly in half in October, and tribal members and even some tribal leaders say they can’t get clear answers on just how much money is being generated and how much is spent by the tribe.
“We’re always wondering what’s going on,” tribal member Deloris George, who often questions tribal finances, told the Yakima Herald-Republic.

Yakama Land Enterprise is the tribe’s major hub for overseeing business operations, responsible for 2,000 acres of apples, and cherries, farmland leases, some timber sales, a fruit stand and a recreational vehicle park. The tribe opened a casino in May 1998 on its south-central Washington reservation, and about 110 million feet of logs are processed each year at the tribally owned sawmill.

Each business represents tribal efforts at self-sufficiency, a move away from relying on the federal government, which historically hasn’t always served the best interests of American Indians. In addition to revenue, the ventures are credited with lowering tribal unemployment from about 90 percent a decade ago to about 60 percent today.

But the businesses operate in an insular society not subject to the same open-record laws as state and federal governments.

Each tribal operation is supposed to report to the Tribal Council, an elected 14-member board that oversees the tribe’s daily operations. But not all council members can get information on revenue being generated, said Mavin Kindness, vice chairwoman of the General Council.

The General Council includes all tribal members and is headed by four elected officers, including Kindness.

This year, tribal business and revenue have come into sharper focus after tribal members asked for additional per-capita payments to help out with school shopping and Christmas.

In late August, tribal members approved dipping into the tribe’s perpetual reserve fund so each member could receive a one-time $500 payment. Another motion made by tribal members to distribute $10 million to the tribal membership remains on the table.

The motion is up for review. If it passes, it will break the tribe, Kindness said.

“I don’t know where that’s going to come from,” she said.

A drop in timber prices forced tribal leaders to cut per-capital payments to tribal members. They also say poor business decisions by previous tribal leaders and that drop in lumber prices are to blame for an apparent budget shortfall.

In particular, two recent business deals by former tribal leaders have fueled mistrust: the purchase of a professional basketball team, the Yakama Sun Kings, and the purchase of a juice plant in Selah, north of Yakima. Both entities were purchased without the knowledge of tribal members and even some elected officials.

Questions remain about what happened to roughly $2.7 million in juice plant money. Tribal Council reports show it was withdrawn over a five-month period in early 2005 without any records of who authorized the transactions.

Tribal leaders also say it’s not clear why $250,000 was taken from Yakama Land Enterprise to buy the plant’s land, which according to Yakima County records sold for just $25,000.

The FBI is investigating Land Enterprise for possible illegal business practices, although it’s not clear if the probe is related to the juice plant.

Tribal leaders also contend the Sun Kings are operating at a loss.

If things weren’t done secretly, the tribe wouldn’t be in this financial dilemma, Kindness said.

“It’s very frustrating. I’m getting tired of people doing things in secret,” she said. “When people do things in secret, it’s not for the benefit of the tribe. It’s only for the benefit of a few, and the tribe gets left holding the bag.”

Some tribal members say the two operations should be sold. In the meantime, tribal members told leaders to draft a plan giving them a share in casino profits.