Bringing a culture back – Tulalip Tribes

A friend sent a link to an article from Marysville, Washington to me today.  It was about the opening of a tribal cultural center on the Tulalip reservation.  The center cost the Tulalip Tribes 19 million dollars to build – the construction of the center took 156 years to build.  The plan began sometime after 1855 when the all of the tribes in the area signed a treaty with the United States government that led to them being relocated to what is now the reservation near Marysville.  And thus began the years of occupation, humiliation and domination from which they are only now beginning to emerge.

For the first hundred and thirty three years the tribes struggled to survive and provide a framework for tribal cultural.  Most had lost their language and religion when the government forced all of the young people to go to regional Indian schools where their languages and religions were forbidden, their hair was cut and they were given white names.  But in their hearts they remembered who they were, they saved their memories, little bits and pieces of their culture and dreamed of  a time when they could begin teaching and speaking their language and displaying their history – this weekend the Tulalip Tribes made a huge step toward that goal.  So, where did the 19 million dollars come from one might ask?  Casinos and an industrial park, which came from the money produced by the casinos.

In 1988 President Regan signed the National Indian Gaming Regulatory Act; the Act was popular with Indian tribes, but not with gaming companies or state governors.  The tribes saw an opportunity to gain some economic independence and the states saw a threat their control and sovereignty – the gaming industry was uncomfortable with the impending competition.  The act passed congress, not because the idea of allowing Indian tribes to operate casinos was a popular idea, but because the courts had ruled on a series of gaming cases that gave tribes the right to operate gaming.  The courts had found that if a state permitted gaming and did not prohibit it, then a tribe might do so; the court said if the state permitted any person for any purpose to conduct gaming then an Indian tribe within that state could operate gaming without any interference or restrictions from the state.  The phrase “any person for any purpose” was really important – because most states did allow gaming to some people, some of the time.  Of course, they did not allow casinos, at that time only Nevada and New Jersey had legal casinos, but states had horse racing, lotteries, charitable bingo and casino nights – any which would allow a tribe to open a casino.

So the NIGA was intended to put in some restricts and give the states a role in the opening and operating of Indian casinos – tribes were required to negotiate a compact – treaty – with the states for conditions, limitations and extent of a gaming operation.  Congress also imposed a further restriction – it required the tribes to use the money for the tribes and tribal members.

The Act’s purpose is to provide a statutory basis for the operation of gaming by tribes to promote tribal economic development, self sufficiency, and strong tribal governments. IGRA provides a basis for the regulation of Indian gaming adequate to: shield it from organized crime and corrupting influences; ensure that the tribe is the primary beneficiary of gaming revenues; and ensure Indian gaming operations are fair and honest for the operator and the players. 

The lawmakers may have felt that was a restrictions, but for the tribes it only codified a core principal – to maintain their identity. The tribes wanted and need money to strengthen their cultures, build schools, roads, houses and provide services for their members.  Most tribes have used the money for just that.  Certainly that is what Tulalip wanted – they wanted to be the first tribe – and they were, not only in Washington, but on the West Coast; more importantly,  they wanted to build a reservation for all of their enrolled members, now listed at 9000, and they wanted to rebuild the culture destroyed by years of federal government oversight, regulations and controls – occupation.

Indian gaming has grown to be a $26.5 billion industry as of 2010 – it has had a major impact on conventional gaming also.  Cities like Reno have had their gaming industry reduced by nearly half from the competition with Indian casinos in nearby states. But in keeping with the original act, it has allowed Tulalip and many other tribes like them to rebuild a portion of their culture and provide jobs and services to any tribal member who sought it.   Tulalip has used the gaming revenues to build other business and create broader- based cash flows. And those revenues allow them to pursue other business opportunities and extent the range of tribal services.

Indian gaming and the Tulalip Tribes were very important in my career.  In 1990 I lost my job – I was fired.  Being fired is very painful, much like divorce, I wanted to avoid the pain if possible,  so I decided to try consulting – but had few prospects.  However, a friend of mine, the same one who sent the link to article today,  introduced me to the Tulalip Tribes – the tribes operated a small bingo hall and wanted to become the first tribe in the state to take advantage of the NIGA.  I worked with the tribe for several years and because of it with other tribes in other states; I could be successful because I had a mentor, Wayne Williams,  who taught me about tribal culture and working in Indian country and much about life in Indian country after the treaties were signed.

Wayne was a very unique person, possibly the finest man I have ever met; I am sure he spoke at the dedication of the cultural center.  I would loved to hear him.  Wayne had an “traditional role” given to him by his grandfather – he was a  “speaker” – his role was/is to articulate the voice of the people – nothing official was ever over until Wayne spoke.  People would wait hours to hear him speak, then they would complain how he “went on and on” – but he spoke for them, and they always waited to Wayne speak.

I am proud of my little part in the tribes progress.  Whatever role any outsider played it was tiny and insignificant, tribal members always and the vision and the drive to work for it.  The vision was always there, stored away in backyard, attics and the hearts of people like Wayne.  Wayne had saved hundred of items, most left to him by his grandmother, for this day – the day when he could bring them out into the sunshine.  Others like Wayne saved other things, including a few who have saved the language.  We, the dominate society,  wanted to integrate the Indian and teach them civilization and culture – make them productive members of our society – but they wanted their own culture – it has taken a very long time, but with the help of a slot machine or two they are closer today to their own vision for themselves than ours for them.  Congratulation to the Tulalip Tribes and to Wayne Williams and thank you for everything you taught me.


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August 2011
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