From fireworks to casinos, W. Ron Allen at Jamestown S'Klallam

SEQUIM, Wash. - Pyrotechnics and Independence Day have seldom gone so well together as when the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe set up a fireworks stand.

Though a signatory to the 1855 Point-No-Point Treaty, the tribe - nuxsklai'yem or "strong people" in their original Coast Salish tongue - had lost its traditional land and status, and of course the treaty-guaranteed subsistence rights, in the ensuing 125 years. The tribe had remained in the area, along with the Lower Elwha and Port Gamble S'Klallam tribes, only because a band of members had pooled funds to purchase acreage in 1874. But a cohesive Native community it remained, witness the tribal revival meetings that took place voluntarily, in private homes, for years before federal recognition and self-governance came around again.

The modest little fireworks stand was a major decision for the Jamestown S'Klallam. But then it was no more a mere fireworks stand than a church, synagogue, mosque, temple or sweat lodge is simply a gathering place. It did more than light their way out of federal termination and historic invisibility; it lit a fuse that has led to one enterprise after another, from land acquisition and real estate interests to a casino, an industrial park, traditional arts and crafts outlets, construction and excavation interests under "8A contracting" for federal projects, a recent health clinic and youth center, an oyster farm and other initiatives including the notorious "geoducks" - that is to say "gooey ducks," lucrative gargantuan clams that take their name from the mud-gagged quacks they emit when wrenched up from their beds on the sandy bottoms of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Hoods Canal. (Actually, the word comes from the Chinook tongue, but the folk etymology is too good to miss in this instance.)

"We started with that little fireworks stand," said W. Ron Allen, the tribal chairman who has been in the tribe's leadership structure throughout its modern period of federal recognition. "From that point forward, we began to look at ways to get businesses started."

As with many tribes, the advent of gaming has given a great boost to plans that were already operational. But at Jamestown S'Klallam, they found that the best way to get businesses started is not with money, not at first anyway. Community, commitment, credibility and capacity come first here. Capital, secondary in any case, can be wasted if these qualities are not already in place.

The tribe's advantage was that even before it earned federal recognition in 1980, the local non-Indian folks knew it as a contributor to the community; for the tribe had worked hard to make its presence known as a business entity and to win respect for its own distinct community and culture.

With a membership of only 400-plus, it has worked just as hard ever since to earn a voice in national Native politics, both for itself, other small tribes and a number of like-minded organizations it has helped to strengthen or causes it has helped to forward.

At a certain point in public affairs, credibility - the ability to be believed - becomes mission-critical. And credibility means getting involved, establishing a track record.

"We get in the middle of every one of these little wars," Allen said, meaning not only the state-tribe jurisdictional disputes that tangle Northwest politics, but also the government-to-government and trust relationships between tribes and Washington. Underscoring the point, Allen has served as chairman of the National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and most prestigious of tribal advocacy organizations.

Jamestown S'Klallam was one of the first and smallest of tribes to embark on self-governance, which enabled it to take over most of the programs previously managed by the BIA (the option is now available to all tribes).

The tribe has also taken an active, high profile role in fisheries management and environmental projects in the Northwest, where the quality of ecosystems and the scarcity of resources such as shellfish, salmon and geoducks are recognized as overriding priorities. The Dungeness River Watershed, central to the tribe, has been the locus of the tribe's salmon, shellfish and ecosystem restoration efforts.

Wholesale success has been hard to come by in this latter arena. Recently the tribe has had to reconfigure its supply line for shellfish, geoduck, and crab sales because of setbacks in water quality from "non-point sources" the tribe does not control. The tribe's oyster farm, which seeded beds of oysters whose water filtration organs would serve as an early warning of declining water quality, has been jeopardized by the non-point sources problem, Allen said.

But the tribe has continued to progress toward its overall goal of self-sufficiency, defined in tribal literature as the ability to make independent choices and so maintain community cohesion and cultural distinction.

And while Jamestown S'Klallam hasn't declared independence yet, the tribe has kept its powder dry. Now Allen has touched it off, not in anger but to send up a rallying salvo for Indian country. He began the process by co-signing a letter with four other tribal chairmen who feel the Cobell lawsuit to reform federal management of Individual Indian Monies trust accounts went too far in asking a federal judge to place the IIM accounts into receivership. (The letter appeared in Vol. 22, Issue 39.)

But beyond that, Allen agreed to an interview with Indian Country Today in hopes of reinvigorating Indian country for an array of challenges that some consider the most serious in a generation.

ICT: Chairman Allen, the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe has urged small tribes to become involved in national political and organizational leadership. Has this come to pass, if so how and why, and how are they doing?

Allen: I believe it built up because more and more leaders of small tribes ? realized they have to be out in the forefront if they want to express the opinion of their communities.

Another thing that happened is that since the 1970s, self-determination has improved tribal capacities. And casino income has gone more to small tribes, which attracted talent and led the tribal leadership to hire at a higher skill level. They always had the intelligence but not always the resources. Now they elevated the skill level around them. They end up bringing their technical people aboard, technical and legal. Basically they built their teams.

But the casinos have brought more of a new guard than an old guard leadership. The new guard is not seasoned; they see things in more of a microcosm, with less sense of regional and cultural differences. They haven't built that sense of credibility and confidence among their colleagues. So occasionally there's missteps. That's just inexperience.

But it's improving. The activism is ratcheting up at a fairly good clip, and it's on all fronts.

ICT: A phrase we're hearing more often is vertical inclination - a shorthand phrase for the way some tribal leaders are inclined to work on Native issues at a level that in some way transcends the grassroots community level, if you will, opening themselves up to criticism from the community that they are not in touch enough, or rather are in touch with everything except their community. Can you, with your commitment to both local community issues and national impact, comment from your own experience?

Allen: That is one of the most important obstacles tribal leaders have to overcome. You have to communicate. You have to be accessible.

Writing comes first. Why is that important? Because people are interested, and there are so many topics. You can't explain them all at once. They're too overwhelming in their collective self - it's like trying to take a drink out of a fire hydrant. So basically you've got to trickle it out.

There's writing, where almost every tribe has its own newspaper, newsletter, or a small community publication. There are social events, public meetings, services. In my situation, where one of our members has passed, you want to make the services and support the family, show your respect for the service and the person, but you can't always. I may not make the service but I reach out, I let them know I'm thinking of them.

People want to know you're accessible, not 24/7 because they don't expect that. But as long as you're returning calls on a regular basis, you're accessible. The most priority issue with them is, they want to have confidence that you're accountable.

Returning my calls is a regular priority, and my calls to community members come first - before the president or an important government official, because these are the people who hold me accountable. You'll get back to the president or an important official of course, you won't keep them waiting, but community members first.

A good staff is critical to your responsiveness. Your staff will know the issues and sometimes they can respond so that not everything has to come to you. Not everyone wants to talk to you, they're concerned about their issue and they're just as happy if the staff can respond. And some things they know go right to me. So your experienced staff has got to have its filters in as to priorities.

ICT: Can you assess the federal trust relationship with tribes in light of the Supreme Court's Navajo Nation v. United States coal royalties decision of March 4?

Allen: The Supreme Court is not our friend anymore. The Supreme Court is trying to reverse 200 years of legal history. Tribes have got to find out how they can take care in moving things to the Supreme Court. There are many landmines.

The case was a setback. The sovereignty protection initiative of the National Congress of American Indians and the Native American Rights Fund is important, so that the Supreme Court cannot say that unless a trust responsibility is explicit in the statute, it's not the same as this trust relationship.

We must not let anyone minimize the federal trust relationship in trying to shift tribes back into a termination mentality.

A very aggressive education and public relations campaign are going to be important.

ICT: Is there reason for concern about the effect of the Cobell trust funds reform effort on the definition of federal trust responsibilities, especially as the definition evolves in light of the Supreme Court Navajo analysis?

Allen: The trust funds reform effort will not be a part of the effort to undermine tribes and tribal authority, no. Some people have that concern but I don't. We have a huge fix that we're going to have to deal with here.

ICT: Given no end of pressing issues in Indian country, what issue that we have not touched on do you think most needs addressing?

Allen: Indian country seems to have lost a lot of the momentum we had in the last administration. If this administration is not engaged in the Indian country issues, we need to get them engaged. It's not that they're not interested. But we're not pushing enough. If we're not pushing, we fall off their radar screen.

It's easier to stay home. But one we're not getting budget adjustments, and then if budget decisions are based on population undefined allocations, small tribes lose. We've got to reinvigorate ourselves and regain focus.