Wheelers, dealers, and Indians

Snoqualmie tribe struggles to set up a reservation.

IN THE SEVEN months since it was recognized by the federal government, the Snoqualmie Indian tribe hasn't let grass grow under its feet. The tribe has lined up a potential business partner in Arizona, who along with tribal leaders has been meeting with government officials and real estate owners to talk about building a resort, a casino, and maybe other enterprises as well. The tribe's exact plans are a mystery because its leaders turn cagey when questioned too closely—if they agree to talk to the press at all. No doubt they're cautious of the controversy that a casino, or any development, could bring in the forested Snoqualmie Valley that is their ancestral homeland.

What tribal leaders will say, sitting down recently with the Seattle Weekly in the small '70s-style rambler in Fall City that serves as their headquarters, is that some interesting people have come calling as late. "We have all these investors wanting to talk to us," says tribal council member Ray Mullen, who forms a triumvirate of power with brother and tribal chairman Joseph Mullen and aunt and vice-chair Mary Anne Hinzman.

"It's funny how popular you get all of a sudden," Hinzman says. In fact, Hinzman says various characters promising financial opportunity have been calling for years. "There's this guy who always calls and says, 'Mary Anne, I've got $15 million in the bank for you.' We just laugh at him."

But the trickle of calls turned into a flood after the feds gave the Snoqualmies back their legal standing and, with it, the right to carve out a reservation over which they would be sovereign. If casino developers have come running—thanks to laws allowing gaming on reservations—so too have entrepreneurs involved in cigarette manufacturing, restaurants, and gas stations. Some hail from other tribes around the country. For example, the Snoqualmies say they have been approached by a mail-order pharmaceutical business run by the wealthy Mashantucket Pequots in Connecticut, owners of the most successful casino in North America.

Obviously, the economic landscape has changed in Indian country. To be sure, ramshackle houses and dirt roads are still a lot more prevalent on reservations than businesses. But nobody has failed to notice the gleaming gaming palaces that have arisen in the past two decades. While far from all have been successful, enough have to attract an ever-increasing number of people who want to get in on the action. "This is like a gold rush in Indian country," says Ken Hansen, chairman of the Samish Indian Nation, another newly recognized tribe sorting through business offers. Nationally, the tribes' latest suitors are Las Vegas mega-outfits like Harrah's and New York money-bags Donald Trump, who fought Indian gaming for years before apparently deciding that investing in the competition made more sense. Trump has concentrated on Connecticut and California, but has been nosing around Washington state too. The Tulalip tribe unwittingly found themselves in talks with businessmen backed by the Donald, an affiliation that when it became apparent promptly ended the conversation, according to the Tulalip's John McCoy.

AMIDST THESE HEADY prospects, caution is advised. Aside from the obvious pitfalls of shady operators and cash-starved dreamers, tribes say they have to look out for developers with misperceptions. "There's this notion that if you can line up an Indian tribe, you can do something without environmental reviews," says the Samish's Hansen. Though tribes can bypass state and local regulations, they are subject to the National Environmental Protection Act.

Still, today's wheelers and dealers in Indian country aren't only outside opportunists. Tom Hampson, executive director of the Oregon Native American Business and Entrepreneurial Network, says that the real economic news among tribes is that they and their members, aided in part by casino wealth, have become active players in entrepreneurial schemes. Some, like the Mashantucket Pequots' pharmaceutical company, have grown big enough to expand onto other reservations. "The good news is that tribes are in a position of strength," Hampson says. His own organization has given advice and training to Native American-owned ventures ranging from espresso carts to telecommunications companies.

What all this means for the Snoqualmies is that they have options as they set about forming a new government. It is, nevertheless, a long road to financial and governmental success. First, they have to get the basics together by writing a constitution and ordinances governing tribal enrollment and elections. Then, most importantly, they have to acquire reservation land. Without it, not only is any business development unlikely, but the tribe's eligibility for federal funding is also limited. Right now the tribe is getting $160,000 a year from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the base amount the agency affords new tribes. Additional BIA funding is usually linked to land holdings. For instance, the agency will allocate money for forest or grazing management. A dozen or so federal agencies also give out money to tribes for housing, health, and other specific needs, but tribes have to apply for these funds and nothing is guaranteed.

To get funding for the land itself, the Snoqualmies can approach Congress, or they may get what they need from a financial backer. Even with money in hand, the process of putting land into "trust," or reservation status, can take as long as three years, according to Karole Overberg of the BIA. The state and neighboring communities usually have an opportunity to weigh in, and that might get contentious if the tribe plans a casino or other major development on land prized for environmental reasons.

If the Snoqualmies are to exploit all their economic opportunities, they will have to pass one more hurdle: intertribal conflict over fishing rights. Thanks to the famous Boldt federal court decision, tribes are collectively entitled to harvest half the state's salmon catch at their "usual and accustomed" fishing areas. Worried about losing its share of the pie, and claiming to be the true inheritors of the Treaty of Point Elliott signed by the Snoqualmies in 1855, the Tulalip tribe long opposed the Snoqualmies' fight for recognition.

Expecting the Snoqualmies to press for fishing rights in federal court, the Tulalips now appear ready to negotiate. The Tulalips' John McCoy recalls being at a meeting with Snoqualmie leaders a month and a half ago. "I said, 'We're willing to talk about anything. What do you want?' They haven't told us yet." Any negotiations would entail working out new boundaries to "usual and accustomed" areas on the stretch of land between the Tulalip tribe near Marysville and the Muckleshoot tribe on the outskirts of Auburn.

Whatever economic avenues the Snoqualmies pursue, ultimately they have to set about the task of seeing to the needs of their roughly 1,000 members. And needs there are. "Hardly a day goes by that someone doesn't call in here because they can't get medical help," says vice-chair Hinzman. In addition to providing health services, the tribe would like to build a senior center.

Or at least that's what it said several weeks ago, before published reports of its investigation into building a casino. As of last week, the tribe wasn't talking about anything. If it's in the process of making deals, it's doing so quietly.

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