Arizona tribe ponders the use of $5 million

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The Arizona tribe that owns the popular Grand Canyon Skywalk recently received more than $5 million from a federal government settlement and is divided on whether to split the money among its members or invest it in education and infrastructure.

The Hualapai Tribe’s lawmakers plan to meet Friday to decide how to proceed with the money from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to compensate the tribe for the use of its land. Each of the 2,100 enrolled tribal members would receive about $2,500 if the Tribal Council chooses to give it directly to them, or if it’s settled by a referendum vote. That amount is about one-fifth of what the Census estimates is the yearly per capita income among the 1,090 people living on the reservation.

It’s unclear how the settlement amount compares to the annual revenue the tribe generates from tourism, leases of slot machine allotments to other tribes or tribal businesses. A spokesman for the tribe declined to release that figure.

Such pots of money often bring out a variety of opinions on what should be done with it. On the Navajo Nation, lawmakers have been talking for years about how to spend money from a $1.2 billion trust fund developed in 1985 to replenish lost revenues from coal, timber, natural gas and oil.

The suggestions have included building jails and courts, and plugging holes in the tribal budget.

Navajo President Ben Shelly announced Monday that he had vetoed an attempt to decrease the set-aside into that fund from 12 percent to 2 percent of the fiscal year 2013 budget, which is $172 million, saying lawmakers didn’t have the authority do to so. The 10 percent would have gone into a fund for economic and community development, and capital outlay.

LoRenzo Bates, chairman of the Tribal Council’s Budget and Finance Committee, said the Navajo Nation should be more forward-thinking with a plan to spend the money, not use it to meet current shortfalls.

“Because $1.2 billion is a whole lot of money to an individual, but when you consider the nation in its entirety and the needs out there, $1.2 billion can be exhausted in a number of years,” he said.

On the Hualapai reservation, the BIA had been using the tribe’s land for grazing, timber and other purposes. That resulted in a land-use compensation settlement and $5.4 million available to the tribe for spending. BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling did not respond to requests for additional details on the settlement.

Dave Cieslak, a spokesman for the Hualapai Tribe, said the settlement is appropriate, and the tribe is discussing how to best invest it, including individual disbursements.