WORLEY, Idaho - When the Coeur d'Alene tribe began awarding cash grants from casino profits to local schools in 1994, hopes were high and the checks small.
Eight years later, the tribe's contributions begin to match its dreams for a better educational future for tribal and non-tribal children throughout northern Idaho.
At a Jan. 19 awards ceremony, tribal council members, Coeur d'Alene Casino executives and school district officials joined in what has become an annual event to distribute 5 percent of the tribe's casino profits to area schools.
This year the tribe distributed $980,000 in cash awards.
Plummer-Worley School District superintendent Wayne Trottier said it has been inspiring to watch the tribe's contributions grow over the years. In 1994, for example, his school district received a check for $3,000. This year it received $290,000.
"The greatest thing about it is the tribe has not attached any strings to it," Trottier said. "I think that is a great trust on the tribe's part. Our responsibility in the district is to honor the commitment the tribe has made."
Plummer-Worley district manages the funds like most of the other districts. The money is absorbed into the general fund. But Trottier said those funds are specifically earmarked and there are specific line-items for a large portion of the money.
At Plummer-Worley funds go to building curriculums, increasing the number of books in school libraries, after-school programs, a Coeur d'Alene language program and a freshman orientation program for children entering high school.
This year the tribe also presented checks to St. Maries School District, the Coeur d'Alene and Post Falls school districts, Kootenai, Wallace and Kellogg school districts, Troy High School, Pinehurst and Sorenson elementary schools and North Idaho College.
The tribe's education program received a $513,000 check.
"We know that these contributions are investments in the future," tribal Chairman Ernest Stensgar said. "There is no better way to help our children and communities than to help education.
"Because of that commitment we are reaching students now from the time they first enter a classroom, to the time when they earn a college degree."
Casino marketing director Laura Stensgar said negotiating the tribe's gaming compact with the state to include a 5 percent gaming profit plough-back into education was one of the best things the tribe could have ever done.
"We get a lot of great feedback from students as well as teachers and community members supporting our endeavors," Stensgar said. "We are all here working together and living together and I think it's a great contribution. Also, we're giving a good example to our children. We're showing them that we truly do care, that we truly do believe in them and that we are looking forward to a great future."
One of the best things about the program is that it gives small schools that might not qualify for other government grants the opportunity to receive much-needed funds. For example, Stensgar pointed out that Troy High School, which received $25,000 from the tribe this year, attempted to get funding from the state and failed.
"They called us up and really showed great need, so we wanted to help them out." Positive public opinion about the tribe has been rising ever since the tribe started contributing locally. In a geographic area often noted for its anti-Indian sentiments, this is good news.
Parents of non-tribal children are grateful for whatever educational boost their children receive.
"One of the things about the awards program that has impressed many non-tribal members is that there are schools that the tribe has contributed to that probably have a Native enrollment of less than 1 percent," says Trottier. "Many may not have any Coeur d'Alene members whatsoever."
The awards program also indirectly promotes cultural sharing. Non-tribal members are beginning to learn firsthand that the Coeur d'Alene tribe's culture places a high value on sharing and unconditional gift-giving.
"I'm really impressed by them," Trottier said. "In my 20 years of education it's one of the first times I've ever seen this type of disbursement process. It's basically, 'Here's a check for $290,000. Good luck. We support what you do with it and we wish you well."
With the tribe continuing plans to build a destination resort on the reservation, the educational funding program will undoubtedly continue to expand over the next few years. Stensgar said she thinks the tribe will be able to increase awards as the destination resort is completed.
In addition to the Coeur d'Alene Casino, the tribe has built hotel accommodations for the resort and there are plans for a championship golf course.