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Building relationships

Workshops introduce local businesses, governments to Indian country

TACOMA, Wash. - Washington;s 29 Indian tribes have a strong business ally in Gov. Christine Gregoire.

Gregoire recently directed her Office of Indian Affairs and the state's Department of Revenue to conduct a series of half-day workshops across the state to improve business relationships between the tribes and local businesses and governments.

The workshops, called ''Uncovering the Mystery of Tribal Sovereignty,'' are meant to give non-Indians a better understanding of tribal sovereignty, explain the reach and limits of tribal laws, and dispel myths or prejudices that sometimes hinder credit and business services to Indians.

Deborah Johnson, senior planner for the city of Lakeland, a suburb of Tacoma and neighbor of the Puyallup Tribe, recently attended a workshop in Tacoma.

Johnson called the workshop ''really helpful'' and said that going in she wasn't really certain what Indian trust lands were and what rules applied to them. Now that she understands some of the rules regarding the Puyallup Tribe's lands, she said Lakeland is going ''to want to do some business with them.''

According to a 2006 study commissioned by the Washington Indian Gaming Association, Washington's ''Indian economy'' generated more than $3.2 billion in revenue in 2004 and employed 30,000 people. Washington tribal and individual Indian spending topped $2.2 billion in the same year and yielded $141 million in state and local taxes.

Gregoire hopes that the workshops will drive those numbers even higher.

Craig Bill, director of the Governor's Office of Indian Affairs, believes the workshops have been ''a great success.''

He has found that after non-Indian business and local government leaders go through the workshops, they tell him, ''There's a lot more similarities than differences [than they originally thought]'' and that they have ''walked away going, 'wow, now we understand this.'''

Another workshop attendee, Deborah Doyle, said she was impressed enough with the presentations that she was going to send all of her employees to later workshops. Doyle is a regional district manager for the state Department of Social and Health Services in Everett.

Doyle said she attended because her office enforces child support payments and that it is important to understand how tribal sovereignty affects what is considered income and what is not. She called the presentations ''fantastic'' and ''definitely worth sending my staff'' to see.

The workshops were led by presentations from Craig Bill; Leslie Cushman, deputy director of the state Department of Revenue; and Marty Loesch, attorney for the Swinomish Tribe.

Cushman's office funds the seminars. She noticed that tribes, local governments and business leaders ''don't have a common terminology at all'' which hurts business growth.

''It's not ignorance [on the part of neighboring towns or businesses]. It's just that we haven't spent any time in communities with what it means to be a tribe in the 21st century,'' she said. ''Many people don't believe that treaties exist.''

Making tribal sovereignty, tribal laws, and tribal contributions to the state's economy easy to understand is one of the principal missions that Gregoire hopes to accomplish this year.

For instance, the presentations reinforce the principle of tribal sovereignty by quoting the U.S. Supreme Court which has said that ''a treaty, including one between the United States and an Indian tribe, is essentially a contract between two sovereign nations.''

And while improving business relations on and around Indian reservations is good for both Washington's tribes and the state economy, the fact that this level of outreach is taking place in Gregoire's re-election year should not be overlooked.

Rebecca George, a member of the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe and communications specialist in the Governor's Office of Indian Affairs, said that so far the workshops have been ''going great'' and that there has been ''lots of feedback.'' Most have been completely booked, she added.

Bill said the workshops are ''just a start.'' He thinks they will help people understand how business works in Indian country and that ''there are big benefits to this.''

The workshops run through May.