KLAMATH, Calif. — You do not have to drive far into the town of Klamath to see the poverty and the potential of the Yurok Indians, the largest tribe in California and one of the poorest.
Just off Highway 101, past an understocked grocery and an overstocked bar, sits a row of ragged mobile homes behind a chain link fence topped with barbed wire. Beat-up cars sit along the gravel drives, as does the occasional bored teenager.
There are also signs of change. A handsome tribal headquarters and a crisp new gas station anchor the reservation. And slot machines are on their way, 99 of them approved by the state, expected to be housed in a new building near tribal headquarters.
But in many ways, the Yurok people have already hit the jackpot. This spring, the Department of the Interior paid the tribe $92.6 million in logging proceeds, a figure roughly six times the tribe’s annual budget.
Yet even the silver cloud, it seems, has a dark lining. The money, which had been held in trust by the government for nearly two decades, has sharply divided the Yurok people, pushing them into two passionate camps: those who prefer long-term community projects and social programs and those who want the money handed up now.
It is a dispute that has echoed through meetings and conversations for months, and one that has upset elders who watched the tribe battle all manner of enemies — settlers and neighbors, white men and fellow Indians — only to find themselves fighting one another.
“We’re a culture people, we’re a fishing people and a ceremony people,” said Raymond Mattz, 64, a member of the tribal council. “But it’s a rough time for us because everybody is so poor, and the money is making everybody a little goofy.”
On one side of the issue are leaders like Maria Tripp, the tribal chairwoman, who favors programs to address the myriad problems the tribe has struggled with over the years, including high unemployment, flagging fishing, drugs and alcohol, and the dwindling of lands, traditions and hope.
“We’re not going to get another $92 million dropped in our lap,” Ms. Tripp said. “This is an opportunity for us.”
On the other, some here feel that the money could — and should — be used to alleviate the day-to-day problems for hundreds of the tribe’s 5,000 members.
“We’ve got tribal members right now who have been waiting all their life,” said Willard Carlson Jr., 57, a tribe member. “And the thing about it is, it’s not the tribal government’s money. It’s the people’s money.”
The settlement was a result of a 1988 act of Congress that established the Yurok reservation. The law provided payment for the pre-1988 sale of logs on their land, some 63,000 acres about 325 miles north of San Francisco that snake along the fog-shrouded, and once salmon-rich, Klamath River. To gain the timber payment, the Yurok leadership only recently agreed not to sue the government in regards to the 1988 law, said Douglas Wheeler, a lawyer with Hogan & Hartson in Washington who is representing the tribe.
The issue of how to spend the money is up for a vote this fall, and the tribal council is required to put forth a plan. But at a tribal meeting in early August, several speakers were already expressing impatience about the pace of progress. At the annual salmon festival on Aug. 19, the tribe’s biggest event of the year, one parade float included a large sign reading: “Lump sum for all tribal members — 100 percent of settlement, 100 percent of interest!”
Various per capita proposals being floated include adults-only allotments, as well as payments for all members, plans that could result in payments of roughly $15,000 to $20,000.
That sort of opinion infuriates tribe members like Tom Willson, who works at the town fishery and said the settlement should be “seed money, to buy some of our lands back, to run programs, to ensure that the Yurok people go on forever.”
“If we squander that money, we’ll be in bad shape in a couple of years,” Mr. Willson said. “We’ll be nowhere.”
It was not always this way. Tribal lore holds that the Yurok were once one of the most prosperous tribes in the West. Their lands were — and still are — spectacular: lush green mountains reflected in the placid waters of the Klamath, which flows into the Pacific through a narrow sand channel. Legend has it that the passage is guarded by Oregos, an outcropping of rock resembling a mother with a child on her back, and that the Klamath beyond her was once so full of salmon a person could walk across the river on the backs of the fish.
And sure enough, for many generations, the fish and the redwoods provided jobs and prosperity, members say.