SPOKANE, Wash. - Back in the early 1980s things looked pretty bleak for the
Kalispel Tribe. The reservation only measured about one mile by nine miles
along the Pend Oreille River, much of the land in a flood plain and the
rest on the hillside of the Selkirk Mountains. The population had dropped
to about 225, alcoholism was extensive, life expectancy was poor with few
members over 55, and the educational level was low with only about half the
members having a high school degree or GED and none with college degrees.
To top it off, there was no money to change the situation and no solution
in sight. But long-time tribal chairman Glen Nenema had dreams of what he
would like to happen in the future.
David Bonga, Minnesota Chippewa attorney, arrived in Spokane about that
time and began working with the Kalispel Tribe. He and Nenema spent many
hours talking about concerns and problems on the reservation and how to
address them. As Bonga said, "We had all these ideas and visions but we
didn't have any money. There was no money at all."
Two things happened. About 1987 Nenema gave up alcohol and this seemed to
send a message throughout the tribe. Alcoholism became less of a problem.
Secondly, the Kalispel Tribe in conjunction with six other tribes and using
some federal monies, developed an alcohol and drug facility in Spokane for
adolescents called Healing Lodge, completed in 1994. Once that was funded
and operational, Nenema asked "what are we going to do about the parents
and families?" He and Bonga then resurrected the dreams and ideas and came
up with the concept of a holistic center to treat the entire family. It
would include not only drug and alcohol counseling but also an education
component, job training component and employment component.
Money was still unavailable and the source of federal dollars had dried up.
The tribe had received a small parcel of land in Airway Heights on the
western edge of Spokane, many miles from the reservation, and this was put
in trust in 1993. The tribe decided to built a casino on this land and
utilize profits to fund a center which was to become the Camas Institute.
The casino opened the last week of December 2000 and it began funding the
Camas institute in February 2001. The name originated because the Institute
was to provide strength and nourishment to tribal members much like the
bulb of the camas plant which was a traditional food staple for the
Kalispel and other Plateau tribes, providing strength and nourishment. The
first couple of years were a period of trial and error with some successes
and some failures.
Phil Haugen is one of the success stories. Haugen is a tribal member who
had shown good promise as a part-time teacher and later as a regulator at
Northern Quest Casino. Camas Institute sent him to various leadership
programs and the BIA police academy in Artesia, N.M. where he received the
Director's Award for best exemplifying what an officer should be. He now
serves as director of TGA at Northern Quest Casino. What does Haugen say
about Camas Institute? "They helped provide me with all the resources I
needed. They decided what classes I should take and provided financial
support to attend the academy. They made the connections, paid travel
costs, and were always just a phone call away when anything else was
Other programs didn't do as well. Students were funded to go to college,
but without a support system, the money was often wasted. Students did
poorly with a cumulative grade point average of 1.7.
Bonga was hired to take over Camas Institute as president in 2003. He
immediately resurrected the old dreams and began implementing them. He
returned to the holistic approach to treat individuals' problems and to
give them the tools to progress. The health, financial, spiritual, cultural
and academic needs were all considered. Failures are now becoming successes
and the future is immeasurably better than the past.
Thirty people now work at Camas Institute including the Cusick Learning
Center on the reservation. Division heads are professional people trained
in their respective fields. Over half are American Indians. Ricki Haugen is
Behavioral Health director which includes counseling for mental health and
problem gambling as well as counseling in chemical dependency. She pointed
out that only 1.9 percent of gamblers in Washington state are problem
gamblers but they do need help. It was a known problem before the casino
was built and the tribe was proactive in preparing for it. Ricki said, "I'm
not aware of any other tribes this proactive in treating gambling
problems." They are also involved with "Taking it to the Schools", a
prevention program to reduce problems before they develop. This program
will be in many area high schools this school year.
Joe Waner, clinical manager for the chemical dependency program, pointed
out how the various divisions work together. "When we say holistic it's not
just lip service, it's actual. We must not only treat the person with an
identified problem but the other family members as well and their
environment. We work together as a team. They're met at the door and
treated very respectfully from that point through each member of the team."
Catherine Grainger serves as education and career development coordinator.
She works with students and others to conduct skills assessments to
determine their strengths and thus help design college courses or careers
best suited to those strengths. She said, "The thing I enjoy most about my
job is that I get to be part of the process that lets people see their
dreams come true, and in dispensing hope as an everyday commodity." This
program also has a life coaching program to support students all the way
through, helping prevent or overcome problems. The encouragement and
reinforcement of motivation keeps them pressing on to their goals.
Tim Collins, dean of programs, talked of the success of the program and the
enthusiasm of students when they realize they can reach their goals.
Collins said, "It's amazing to see that when it happens. It's magical!"
Another education program is called "Read Right." Bonnie Varner manages
this program and she speaks with excitement about how quickly reading
ability improves under this program. "We can increase a child's reading
level by a full grade in just 13 - 20 hours of tutoring," she said. She
cited one example of a student who spent 18 hours in the program and whose
reading level improved from an eigth grade level to post high school.
Adults often learn even more quickly. "Many benefits are realized from
improved reading skills. Reading also improves self esteem and changes
behavior," Varner said. It's an expensive program but, "every tribe that
can afford to do this should be in a partnership with their school
district, working with them," she said.
There's one final aspect to the work at Camas Institute. Bonga explained,
"We have recruited 13 private companies in the Spokane area to join the
Camas group. They have agreed to assist in training if anyone is interest
in their field through a mentoring program of on-the-job training. They're
also committed to hiring people who have gone through Camas."
The tribe now has about 360 members. Alcoholism has decreased and life
expectancy has increased, now 25 members are older than 55 although 56
percent are 18 or younger. Two years ago there were only five college
graduates but now they have approximately 40 members in institutes of
higher learning. Included is one woman going to law school next year, two
going on to become doctors, and a freshly-graduated teacher. Many tribal
members took entry-level jobs when the casino opened and many are now
taking courses that will allow them to move into management positions here
As good as this sounds, it is still early and many improvements are still
"I see a health facility of not just western style but a holistic-type
wellness center. I see a larger facility for education. I see us tied into
or developing and being the intercollegiate center for Native studies. We
will be affiliated with an interpretive center for the Plateau tribes which
is being put together at this time. And I see a lot of our students going
on to being professionals. All these things line up with the original
vision. It allows individuals to develop to their fullest in whatever field
they want to enter," Bonga said.