Tribes: A New Era: February 2009

In This Article

Print Friendly

From economic development to health care and family services, Native Americans are making a better life for themselves.

By Josh Lohmer

At a school on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana, the students had just received computers but didn’t know what to call them. This is no ordinary elementary school. It is an immersion center called Nizipuhwahsin—“real speak” in the Blackfeet language—where students learn Piegan, the language of their ancestors. Virtually dormant for generations, Piegan never developed a word for computer.

Piegan is a descriptive language, explains instructor Rosella Many Bears, so she and her fellow teachers listened to the students chatter in their native tongue about the computers. Based on the kids’ observations, a Piegan word—Aikaamsinaki—was born. It means “the thing that writes fast.”

Like the Nizipuhwahsin students, tribes across the country are rebuilding their nations and, in the process, deciding again for themselves what it means to be Cherokee, Hopi, Mohawk, Osage—identities that until recently have been shaped by centuries of violence, heartbreak and neglect.

“Prior to the 1970s and 1980s, when tribes really began governing themselves, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs dominated reservations with antiquated and paternalistic systems,” says Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians.

Since then, says Pata, the tribes have been building up their capacity in just about every area, from economic development and social services to health care and education.

“I have seen amazing growth over the last decade and am very optimistic about the future,” she says.

The picture varies from reservation to reservation, but overall, the tribes’ resurgence has been dramatic. Since 1990, the population in Indian Country has increased by more than 25 percent. Poverty remains high but has dropped by more than one-fifth thanks to falling unemployment rates and a 30 percent rise in incomes.

Such progress is evident in the Pacific Northwest, where the extraordinary strides three tribes have made in the last half-century signal what tomorrow might look like for America’s native nations

Sign of What's to Come

Standing on the bank of the Nisqually River, Billy Frank Jr. waves to a pair of fishermen cruising by in aluminum boats. They wheel around in tandem, cutting parallel arcs in the swift, milky Nisqually, which runs west from Mount Rainier to the southern Puget Sound.

“They never whip around like that to say hello to me,” jokes Frank’s 26-year-old son Willie as he pulls on orange hip boots, preparing to do some fishing.

Willie’s dad is a legend in this area. Without him, Native Americans probably wouldn’t have the right to fish these waters. Thanks to his leadership and a group of local tribes, the rivers, the salmon and the Indians—an intertwined trio—are making a comeback.

“We just can’t keep going on and on as our natural resources disappear. So we’re trying to put it all back together,” says Frank, a Nisqually Indian who has chaired the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission for almost 30 years. “We’re managers out here. We always have been. That’s our job.”

Comprising 20 tribes, the commission works with government groups to manage the salmon, essential to tribal life here for hundreds of years.

“The Puget Sound tribes are truly dedicated to natural resources and the recovery of salmon stocks,” says Washington Senator Karen Fraser. “So for those looking to support sustainable resource management, the tribes are simply a critical partner. Relationships aren’t always rosy, but things have vastly improved over the past 20 years.”

The tribes recently joined Washington Governor Christine Gregoire’s $54 million partnership to clean up Puget Sound, which, despite its pristine appearance, is filthy. Scores of species dependent on the sound’s dying ecosystem are in serious trouble, including the orcas, which are so full of toxins that their bodies are taken to hazardous-waste dumps when they wash ashore dead.

“We know a lot is gone, but let’s protect what we still have,” says Frank, who sits on the partnership’s seven-member leadership council. “What we’re saying is let’s do something right, together.”

Economic Progress

At the Tulalip reservation about 35 miles north of Seattle, past, present and future sit side by side. In one neighborhood, waterlogged mattresses and broken strollers litter the yards, and mold grows on roofs. Yet nearby, a neat row of trash bins lines the curb and a garbage truck marked with the Tulalip’s insignia is collecting.

Around the reservation, new administration buildings, a tribal museum and several housing developments are under construction. Sharp-looking Tulalip police cars patrol the streets, part of a law enforcement branch of nearly 50 officers and staff.

The man who has engineered much of this development is John McCoy. In addition to entering his fourth term in the Washington House of Representatives, McCoy is also general manager of Quil Ceda Village, a political subdivision of the Tulalip Tribes. Sitting at his computer, McCoy generates a detailed map of the Tulalip Indian Reservation that pops up on a flat screen TV across the room.

On the map, Quil Ceda appears as a block of land along the eastern edge of the reservation next to a busy stretch of Interstate 5. Quil Ceda is home to a new $130 million resort, a 225,000 square-foot casino, and Seattle Premium Outlets—a manicured open-air mall with 110 upscale shops such as Burberry, Calvin Klein and Juicy Couture.

“Ten years ago if you said ‘Tulalip,’ people would say, ‘Where’s that?’ Now when you say ‘Tulalip,’ people think, a casino, shopping,” says McCoy, a retired Air Force veteran who has worked since 1994 to diversify his tribe’s economy.

“When I came home in 1994,” says McCoy, “90 percent of our budget came from federal grants. Today, it’s only about 8 percent.”

Quil Ceda also has been good for the surrounding area. In 2007, village businesses reported $303 million in revenue and sent $25.8 million in sales taxes to state and local governments. Quil Ceda’s more than 2,100 jobs make it the fourth-largest employer in the county, up there with companies such as Boeing. The neighboring city of Marysville recently landed a flagship Harley Davidson showroom and a new retail park of its own. Such a symbiotic relationship led to the joint Marysville-Tulalip Chamber of Commerce, the first between a tribe and a municipality.

McCoy says that in the 1940s and ’50s, tribal leaders had already made plans for a business development along I-5. His own aim was to reduce the tribe’s dependency on gaming.

“Gaming can go away anytime with the stroke of a pen,” says McCoy. “So the word around here has always been diversify, diversify, diversify.”

Indeed, a popular notion is that successful tribes depend on casinos. Not always true, says a team of researchers at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government that has studied tribal issues for 20 years.

Although casinos have been a boon to a handful of tribes and a welcome shot in the arm to much of Indian Country, evidence suggests tribes without casinos have kept up. Between 1990 and 2000—the first full decade of Indian gaming—household incomes in Indian areas without casinos grew by 33 percent, seven points more than the 24 percent increase seen by gaming tribes.

In addition to branching out from gaming, researchers say Quil Ceda succeeds for two main reasons. First, with McCoy at the helm it has the tribe’s best interests at heart.

“It is difficult to find a case where federal planning and management produced sustained community or economic development in Indian Country,” says Miriam Jorgenson, an associate director of the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona.

Second, the village has its own council that enacts ordinances, budgets and policies, just like any other city. This helps to sidestep the corruption, political infighting and inexperience that can occasionally scare off companies that might otherwise be attracted to reservations.

“Many tribes have really put their houses in order to assure businesses that their investments won’t be subject to political risk,” said Jonathan Taylor, a researcher at the Kennedy School and a private consultant to tribes.

A study commissioned by former Washington Governor Gary Locke found that 27 tribal enterprises contributed $1 billion to the state’s economy in 1997—less than half of which came from casino revenues.

That kind of growth, says McCoy, has put tribes back on the map.

“People are coming to Indian Country because they are beginning to realize we have things to offer,” says McCoy, who was named 2005 executive of the year by the Puget Sound Business Journal. “I think there will be a day when people will go to tribes, respect them, and treat them as equals.”

Social Services, Too

About 50 miles west of Tulalip, near the mountains and pine forests of Olympic National Park, the Jamestown S’Klallam tribal buildings lie beside the shores of Sequim Bay.

Looking out her office window, Jamestown Vice-Chair Liz Mueller can see the results of 20 years spent trying to provide comprehensive social services to her people. The programs she built and administered almost single-handedly have become brick and mortar. There’s a fitness center, a health and dental clinic, a library and a community center, all impeccably maintained and tucked along the water’s edge.

“Our mission is to help each individual become self-reliant. We want our members to be able to take care of themselves and their families,” says Mueller. “If we prosper, we try to make it a little easier for our elders in their retirement and we invest in our children.”

Self-governed tribes like the Jamestown S’Klallam still receive some federal money, but it is tribal administrators like Mueller who decide how to spend it. Over the last 20 years, she and the tribe have built more than a dozen social service programs that provide everything from parenting support to after-school tutoring and native language lessons.

Mueller’s work offers insight to the changing nature of what it means to be Native American. While some people still associate the tribes with iconic images or slot machines, the S’Klallam focus on first-class health and dental care.

By supporting its families, the tribe has achieved remarkable results. According to Mueller, most Jamestown kids used to drop out by 9th or 10th grade. Now about 95 percent graduate from high school, and last year the tribe paid $450,000 for members to attend college.

“Our youth are our future,” Mueller says. “We just graduated our first doctor.”

Education Strides

Wa He Lut Indian School sits next to the Nisqually River on a six-acre parcel of land bought by Billy Frank’s father in 1919. Inside the school, light pours through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the atrium, where Frank stands surrounded by Indian crafts and pictures of smiling children. Students here benefit from a student-to-teacher ratio of less than 15-to-1 and a curriculum that incorporates tribal history and culture.

Such efforts are brightening prospects for tribal members nationwide. Since the early 1980s, the number of native students enrolled in two- and four-year-degree colleges has jumped from 83,600 to 185,900.

This should help tribal students close a big achievement gap in education. Just 12 percent of American Indians living on a reservation today have a postsecondary degree, compared to 30 percent of all U.S. adults.

A Question of Identity

As tribes strengthen their governments and expand their economies, people ask: “Is any of this modern development Indian?” To which tribal leaders respond, “How can it not be?”

“Our culture didn’t die back when we were living in teepees. It’s alive and continues to evolve,” says Mueller. “So when people get upset that tribes don’t still use sticks to spear fish, I think to myself, who today uses the same technology that their ancestors did?”

That is not to say that tribes have completely abandoned tradition. As tribes regain their autonomy, many are acting on principles that seem to align more with their heritage than with mainstream society. Consider the strong sense of community behind the S’Klallam’s concern for its members’ health, or the emphasis on natural resources that drives the Nisqually, or McCoy’s work, which is really about restoring the Tulalip tribe’s independence.

“I think our tribal traditions and cultures will survive,” says John Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund. “We all worry about maintaining our cultural moorings in the modern world.”

More important, Echohawk says, is that decisions about tradition and other matters are up to the tribes. “We govern ourselves. We get to decide our own identities,”

Back at Wa He Lut, Billy Frank says it is no mystery why the tribes insist on maintaining their sovereignty and continue to rebuild.

“This isn’t some project. This is who we are,” he says. “And we’re still here. Can you believe it?”

Josh Lohmer is a policy specialist at NCSL.