Remembering Wayne Williams: a Friend and Mentor

Wayne Williams was 89 years old when he died on August 2nd.   He was a member of the Tulalip Tribes of Washington and a very good person.  Wayne spent the majority of his life working for his tribe.  He was dedicated to tribal culture and history as his mother and grandparents had been.  I met Wayne in 1990 just after the National Indian Gaming Regulatory Act Passed.  At the time, he managed the Tulalip Bingo and was involved in the tribe’s efforts to take advantage of the opportunity to develop a casino. At the time, the bingo hall and a timber lease were Tulalip’s only had two sources of revenue.  I was introduced to Wayne and Tulalip by a mutual friend. They were looking for someone with casino expertise to help them and our friend recommended me.  The timing was perfect; I had just left the Comstock and was attempting to begin a career as a consultant.  Tulalip was my second client and my introduction into Indian gaming.

Wayne invited me to visit the tribe, see the bingo hall and discuss the possibilities of casino gambling on the tribe’s land near Everett, Washington.  My first trip lasted three days; Wayne showed me everything I asked to see and talked to me about Tulalip, its history and culture.  From the first day, I knew he was a very special person.  Our relationship lasted a few years, before the tribe outgrew my experience.  In 1992, the tribe built and opened the first compacted casino in Washington.  Twenty-some years later it opened a new and larger casino resort.  In 2001, the tribe created Quil Ceda Village under provisions of the Indian Tribal Governmental Tax Status Act of 1982.   The village is located on a 495 acre parcel of the Tulalip Indian Reservation and incorporates a wide variety of businesses including Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Cabela’s, Bob’s Burger and Brew, Olive Garden and the Tulalip Casino Resort.  The village came from the tribe’s experience and revenues from its casino.  Wayne and the other tribal leaders were always seeking to diversify their revenue streams as a way to protect the tribe’s heritage.

As long as I worked with Tulalip, Wayne was always my host, my guide and mentor.  He talked to me about Tulalip and its culture and showed me how to behave in that context.  He talked about the tribe’s treaty history, the historical and contemporary leadership and much, much more.  He was very proud of his heritage and particularly of his grandparents and his mother.  He used their lives to illustrate the challenges tribal members faced under the rule of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.  Wayne’s grandparents were part of the first generation after the treaty of 1855.  They had experienced the boarding school, loss of language, religion and traditions and brutal racism.  But they fought to keep as many of their traditions as possible and to force the federal government to live up the conditions of the treaty.  Still, the mixed culture education and life created confusion and conflict for them.  Wayne’s mother stood by her father’s side and helped in his legal battles.  She also served on the tribal council and as its chairman.   Wayne was heavily influenced by the conflicts of cultures and the battles to retain the tribe’s tradition.  Wayne’s grandfather was a traditional chief and he gave him a traditional role that continued to shape his behavior for his whole life.  Wayne was to be a speaker, one who spoke for the other tribal members.  When he became an adult, no meeting was complete until Wayne spoke, summarizing the issues and pointing out the traditions.  People joked about it, but they always waited for Wayne to speak.  His job was not to shape opinions, but simply speak the words that explained everything in the context of tribal culture.

Wayne taught me many things, but the underlying lesson was always the same; business and money come second to people and traditions.  Most consultant and casino companies have struggled in Indian country because we reverse that order and put money and business first.   To really learn the lesson I had to let Wayne set the tone.  As often as not, I just watched while he demonstrated the traditional ways, as was the case in a meeting we had with the tribal gaming commission.  A compact is a treaty between a state and Indian tribe, gaming compacts govern the operations of casinos.  The compact between the Tulalip and the State of Washington called for a tribal gaming commission with some specific duties.  I felt the tribe was failing to meet the conditions as specified in the compact.  In my world of gaming regulations, compliance with regulations is an absolute.  Failure to comply could lead to heavy fines or even a loss of the casino license.  Because of the importance of the issue, I asked to meet with the gaming commission to explain the requirements and where the tribe might not be in compliance with the compact.

Wayne agreed to a meeting and scheduled a lunch with the commission members.  Wayne took charge in the quiet, non threatening way he always used in meetings.  He began by talking about drumming with the commission chairperson and then moved to talking about family relationship with each of the commission members going back at least a hundred years, tightening the bonds between them as he talked.  The meeting lasted three hours, but for most of the meeting I just watched dumbfounded as Wayne built the meeting around common relationships and history.  By the time it was my turn, they were ready to listen and easily agreed to pay more attention to the details of the compact. Wayne was masterful in weaving tribal culture into casino culture.

Wayne took those skills everywhere and used them to serve his tribe.  He did not act out of self interest; everything he did was done with integrity.  Also, he sought to honor his mother and grandparents in everything he did,.  I learned from Wayne that our cultures were very different, but with respect and compassion we could work together.  I had other tribal clients and other mentors, but no one every helped me as much as Wayne and he did it will respect and compassion.  Wayne Williams was a very fine man and I was proud to call him my friend and mentor.  I will miss him, but his tribe will miss him much more.  


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