Washington tribes vigorously claim their rights

  • Tribal membership in the state of Washington

    Diane Sylvain/Tacoma News Tribune

TACOMA, Wash. - Is "Indian Power" becoming more than just words on a bumper sticker in the Northwest?

Consider: In March, the Spokane Tribe opened a casino with more than 100 slot machines, flagrantly defying state law. In April, western Washington tribes hauled the state into federal court, demanding the right to harvest shellfish on practically every beach on Puget Sound.

And recently, the Colville Confederated Tribes agreed to take $53 million in compensation for damage caused by the Grand Coulee Dam - one of the largest settlements ever won by an American Indian tribe.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., Northwest tribal leaders successfully orchestrated "self-governance" legislation that lets tribes bypass the Bureau of Indian Affairs and gives them direct access to millions of dollars in federal funds.

There is no doubt Washington tribes have become vigorous players in the political arena. In the 20 years since Tacoma's U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt handed down his landmark decision affirming Indian fishing rights, the tribes have turned into political dynamos.

With savvy and well-connected leadership, Northwest tribes have been on the leading edge of virtually every aspect of Indian law in the past 20 years - constantly seeking more turf, more control and more dollars.

Yet according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there has been virtually no improvement in social conditions on most reservations since the Boldt ruling. The main reason, according to tribal leaders, is fierce resistance from non-Indians.

"The state has fought us on fishing, liquor taxes, cigarette taxes and gaming," said Jewell James, project manager for the Lummi Tribe, near Bellingham. "Now it's shellfish.

"There needs to be an understanding between the state, the tribes and all the local governments that surround us that we have needs that have to be met. We need real cooperation and not just a lot of lip service."

In the American melting pot, where minorities traditionally have struggled to fit in and the guiding theory has been "equal rights for all," Indians' attempts to re-establish the independence they had in pre-settlement days are met with hostility and disbelief.

At a meeting of Hood Canal property owners shortly before the shellfish trial began, the tribes' demands got Anne Hamilton so angry her face turned red.

Her father spent years building the family's house beside the canal, she said, and while she has nothing against Indians, she doesn't see why they should be able to traipse across her yard and dig clams on her beach.

"I know the Indians got a rotten deal," she said. "But how many generations of white people does it take to pay for it? They're not talking about equal rights here. What they want is special rights."

Michelle Aguilar, executive director of the governor's Office of Indian Affairs, rolls her eyes at this. The "special rights' complaint is frustrating, she said, because it is widespread and misses the point.

"If people understood treaties they would understand that they didn't give the tribes any rights," Aguilar said. "Indian people always had those rights, and they never gave them up."

But the treaties tended to be vague when territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens dealt with the tribes 140 years ago, and they seem less adequate these days as people compete for scarce resources on land becoming increasingly urbanized.

Uncertainties about the exact relationship between tribes and the state have led to confrontations on virtually every aspect of tribal authority, from religious practices to zoning, criminal jurisdiction and water rights.

Treaties with Northwest tribes guaranteed Indians the right to fish at their "usual and accustomed" places, without identifying precisely where those places were or specifying how many fish the tribes were entitled to take.

Judge Boldt shocked the state when he interpreted the treaties to mean that the tribes are entitled to half of western Washington's entire salmon and steelhead catch. When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Boldt's decision it forced the state to acknowledge that treaties must be taken seriously.

The tribes won the fishing case but absorbed a tremendous amount of resentment. Tribes now tend to take disputes to court only as a last resort, relying instead on more subtle ways of instituting change.

In the last general election, for example, Washington tribes raised more than $80,000 in campaign contributions, most of which was used to support Mike Lowry in his race against veteran Indian-fighter Ken Eikenberry and to back Jennifer Belcher, running for public lands commissioner against conservative Republican Ann Anderson.

Made skittish by Boldt, the state, too, has moved from confrontation to negotiation. But when the stakes involve real profit, power or property rights, talks tend to break down.

The reality of tribal sovereignty - especially the in-your-face variety embodied by casinos and the specter of Indians dredging for geoduck clams on private beaches - forces the question: To what degree is it reasonable for tribal rights to infringe on the rights of everybody else?

George Garland believes the line was crossed long ago. "This definitely has gone too far already," he said. "Tribes are sovereign only unto themselves. They are authorized to govern their own people and their own trust land and nothing else."

Garland, a Tacoma businessman now retired to Gig Harbor, bought a small ocean-front lot on the Quinault reservation in 1969. Part of a development called Point Grenville Estates, the lot had streets, water and power already installed and was ready for construction. Garland planned to build a summer home and spend his retirement years gazing out across the Pacific.

But shortly after Garland purchased the property, the Quinault Tribe zoned the entire area "wilderness" and refused to give him a building permit.

Garland and other non-Indian owners of land on reservations don't believe tribes have the right to restrict privately owned property. They regard the shellfish trial as a long-overdue showdown.

Garland and others opposed to an expansion of Indian power do their best to portray the tribes as dangerously successful enclaves on the verge of becoming rich and autocratic little Monte Carlos.

But according to the U.S. Census, the percentage of Indians in Washington living below the poverty level is just as high now as it was when the Boldt decision came down 20 years ago. Fewer Indians now own their own homes. More Indian children are being raised by single parents, and the low median-family-income has not changed.

Health statistics paint a somewhat more positive picture. According to the Indian Health Service, Indian mortality rates dropped by half in the past 20 years. Accidental deaths and deaths from liver disease - a particularly resilient killer in Indian country - dropped to a third of their pre-Boldt rates.

Nonetheless, the health status of Indians relative to other Americans is still miserable. The accidental death rate for American Indians is twice that of the public at large. The infant mortality rate for Indians in Washington is 12.6 deaths per 1,000 births as opposed to 7.5 deaths for whites.

Statistics on the economic health of the tribes are equally ambiguous.

In preparation for the shellfish trial, University of Washington economist Robert Thomas conducted a study in which he concluded that the western Washington tribes involved in the lawsuit enjoy a standard of living well above the poverty line.

Average household incomes in four of the tribes, Thomas said, exceed the incomes of non-Indians in neighboring counties. For example, Thomas calculated the average income for Puyallup tribal households to be $27,830, compared with $26,686 for all Pierce County households.

The Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe had an average household income of $40,000, according to Thomas, nearly twice the Clallam County average of $21,093.

Tribal attorneys dismiss the study, faulting Thomas' assumption that because of the communal nature of tribes, household income should include money earned collectively by tribal enterprises such as fishing and bingo.

"It's an obvious error," said Muckleshoot attorney Lara Lavi. "You can't equate tribal income with personal income. It just doesn't work that way."

According to tribal economists and managers, economic self-sufficiency is the real key to Indian sovereignty and contrary to Thomas' conclusions, it is proving most difficult to attain.

Rob Carson writes for the News Tribune in Tacoma, Washington.

Note: a sidebar article titled "Non-Indians try to hold onto private property" accompanies this story.

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