Coin: Nation building lessons in the Hoopa Valley


Clifford Lyle Marshall, chairman of the Hoopa Valley Tribe near upstate Eureka, Calif., was asked recently why the tribe never expanded its government casino beyond a few dozen slots in a small reservation shopping center.

The UCLA Law School graduate flashed a sly smile. "We don't want the door to our paradise open too wide," he says.

The Hoopa reservation is, indeed, a paradise, accessible from the south by a winding, narrow road that rises up and over the picturesque Klamath Mountains and into a green, forest valley pierced by the winding Trinity River.

The valley is the center of the Hupa's world. The tribe refers to it as "Natinook," where the trails return.

It is painful to imagine the tranquil beauty of the Hoopa Valley pieced by a procession of cars leading to a large, glitzy, neon-lit casino. And so it's easy to understand why the Hoopa Tribal Council would elect to keep the gambling hall a small, marginal business venture that employs 40 tribal members and, Marshall says "either wins or loses $100,000 or so a year."

In a state that boasts the nation's largest tribal government gaming industry, its largest tribe in land base (96,000 acres), if not membership (more than 2,500), is not staking its future on casino gambling.

One of California's oldest cultures, the Hupa people have lived in their valley for at least 10,000 years and in modern times created one of the first successful self-governance tribal structures in the country. The tribe's organization chart lists more than 60 departments, including a tribal court, health and emergency services, housing and child development.

The tribe manages natural resources once in the hands of the BIA, including forestry, fisheries and wildlife. Hoopa's eco-friendly timber operation is a model for the nation. Other tribal enterprises include an aggregate and redi-mix business, a gas station, a hotel, a newspaper and California's only licensed tribal radio station. Unemployment in the last few years has been cut in half, from 80 to 40 percent.

In a period when prosperity and promise in Indian country often lives and occasionally dies with government gaming, the Hupa people of the Klamath Mountains are teaching us a lesson in the role of nation building in economic development. It is not totally unlike the message taught by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, the White Mountain Apache in Arizona, or the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin.

Long before gaming and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, the Hupa, Choctaw, Apache, Oneida and other Indian people struggled with moderate success to create economic development and generate jobs and opportunity. Some, like the Hupa and Apache, were blessed with timber and other natural resources.

The Choctaw have relied heavily on the wisdom, creativity and business acumen of its democratically elected tribal chief, Phillip Martin. Rick Hill and the Oneida Tribal Council provided stable governmental leadership that paved the way to successful economic development.

But there is a common thread in the strategy used by these and other tribes to not only bring their people out of generations of poverty, but preserve tribal customs and the Indian way of life.

To begin with, they all asserted their tribe's status as sovereign nations. And they backed up their assertions of self-governance by taking full advantage of the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, which gave tribes the option of assuming responsibility for managing law enforcement, fire prevention and other federal trust services funded by the BIA.

They also avoided traps that have snared some gaming tribes, particularly what academicians refer to as the "jobs and income" approach to economic development on Indian lands, a rather simplistic and too often short-sighted remedy for the lack of jobs and businesses on the reservation.

"The problem is this approach typically doesn't work," wrote Stephen Cornell and Joseph Kalt in a paper for the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. "It may produce lots of ideas, but it seldom produces lasting businesses."

In the case of gaming, the "jobs and income" strategy seldom ventures beyond establishing a casino, creating a tribal gaming commission to regulate the operation and forming a development corporation to invest the gaming revenues.

The rush to become involved in government gaming often results in tribes agreeing to concede self-governance to surrounding communities. It also may lead to onerous revenue sharing pacts with state governments that fly in the face of prohibitions against taxation set down in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

A creative strategy

"I look upon economic development on tribal lands as a three-legged stool," Martin says of the Mississippi Choctaws. "It requires a land mass in trust status, a stable tribal government and sovereignty.

"If any of those three legs are missing, the stool will fall," Martin says, "and long-term economic growth will not take place."

Cornell, Kalt and others believe a more creative solution to economic development is to create tribal nations with governments and laws that ensure equal rights and fair dealings for all, Indians and non-Indians alike; an environment that allow businesses and human beings to achieve their fullest potential. It's a system that should not only ensure success of tribal ventures, but encourage large and small business development by individual tribal members.

It is not an easy task, creating strong governmental, judicial and cultural systems designed to stand the test of time and changes in tribal leadership. The returns may not be as quick or lucrative as the "jobs and income" strategy.

But nation building may prove to be the only solution to long-term economic development and the future preservation of Indians and Indian customs.

"That shopping center is 30 years old," former Hoopa Valley Tribal Chairman Dale Risling said of a cluster of stores on the reservation. "We have a radio station, newspaper and hospital. We had all that long before gaming."

"We have 60 departments of government, most of them managed by Hupa people. Our children go to college and come back to the reservation. There is opportunity here. Hupa people can come back to the reservation and practice law and medicine. They can become lawyers or teachers or auditors. It took years to put these systems in place. You have to first develop the laws. Then it has to be institutionalized.

"We don't have the wealth of a large gaming tribe," Risling says. "But we have wealth in other ways. We have our culture. We can hunt on our lands. We can fish in our waters. We can harvest our own timber. We have a very strong tribal government. We live by our laws."

Carbon dating has enabled the Hupa people to trace their heritage along the Trinity River back some 10,000 years. Most of the village houses were built on the east bank of the Trinity, where they could be warmed by the afternoon sun.

Replicas of xontas, or Hupa wood houses, still line the river, reminders of an Indian way of life that, hopefully, will never disappear from the beautiful Hoopa Valley.

Jacob L. Coin is executive director of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, an association of more than 50 Indian nations in the state. He is a member of the Hopi Indian Tribe, Tobacco Clan, from the Village of Kykotmovi in Arizona.