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PABLO – Ramona Cajune wants the tribal council of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to return more settlement dollars to the people she says need it most.

On Monday, Cajune and other tribal members protested a council decision last week to pay individual members only half of a $150 million settlement signed with the U.S. government in May.

The tribal council has been holding meetings on how to spend its portion of the $1 billion going to 41 tribes as a result of a settlement agreement in Nez Perce v. Salazar.

“In my own family, there are people who are homeless,” Cajune said in a telephone interview. “One of the meetings I was at, there was a girl with no electricity, and I knew there were people in that meeting whose kids were hungry because we had fed some of those children earlier that month. So there is extreme poverty here on the reservation.”

The tribal council meets again Tuesday, but tribal communications director Robert McDonald said he has heard nothing to indicate elected leaders plan to reconsider their vote. In fact, he said the decision to disperse $10,000 to each of the estimated 7,800 CSKT members – and retain the other half – came directly from tribal members’ input.

“This action is an effort to strike a balance among the needs presented at the meetings, as well as planning for the future,” McDonald said.

In public sessions about spending, four priorities emerged, he said: providing for elders, language efforts, cultural programs and economic development. The tribal council has not yet allocated funds to those areas.

“There’s no timeline, but it is clearly a topic that they are investing time into,” McDonald said.

Cajune, who described herself as a foot soldier in the protest and a “volunteer for the people’s voice,” said opponents of the council’s decision will be picketing in Pablo this entire week. She did not know how many protesters planned to participate, but she said the full-fledged call on the council to reverse its vote is the first such effort she’s seen.

“The tribal council had been holding community meetings for weeks in which a majority of the people had voiced their favor of the 100 percent payout,” said Cajune, who has lived on the reservation her whole life.

According to an earlier statement from the tribe, it is receiving the settlement in exchange for its agreement to drop the federal lawsuit alleging the United States mismanaged tribal resources and funds: “The settlement agreement is meant to serve as an equitable compensation for this alleged breach of trust.”

The tribe also noted the May 2012 settlement is different than one in the Cobell vs. Salazar case, which involved claims of harm to individuals. The payouts in the Nez Perce case pertain to collective lands owned by the United States and held in trust for the tribes.

“This land is known as tribal trust land, which is managed by the tribal government,” read the statement. “This is not to be confused with individually held trust lands, which are held by the United States for the benefit of an individual.”

If it isn’t reversed, the “per capita distribution” is slated to take place Sept. 12, according to the resolution.

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

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