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Nez Perce Hosts Tribal Economic Sovereignty Summit: 'Where the Rubber Meets the Road'

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Spalding, Idaho—At Nez Perce Tribal Enterprises' third annual economic summit, about 100 Natives from various tribal communities convened to discuss the state of tribal economies and the importance of tribal sovereignty—“where the rubber meets the road,” so to speak.

The host tribe has seen remarkable economic growth in recent years and now ranks second in economic impact in the north central Idaho region, said Joel Moffett, treasurer for the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee (NPTEC), referencing the study conducted by the University of Idaho on the economic impact of Indian tribes in the state.

“It’s incredible. It still boggles my mind," Moffett said. "We employ over 1,100 people, but with multiplier effects it’s over 2,500 jobs. The dollar figure, gross product, is over $107 million. We’re a driver in this north central Idaho economy.”

Other Nez Perce members spoke of recent and upcoming activities that are sure to increase the economic stability of the tribe. Jamie Olson, executive officer of NPTEC, spoke of immediate plans to build an event center west of their hotel and casino while also adding 200 more video gaming machines and such amenities as valet parking. The tribe also intends to remodel the casino's interior.

The tribe is on the cusp of breaking ground for an attractive rest area/convenience store complete with gas stations equipped for trucks as well as cars on the Camas Prairie south of Lapwai and alongside Highway 95, Idaho’s north-south highway, Olson said.

Joel Moffett, NPTEC Treasurer, expanded on those plans. “The State contributed $360,000 for the construction. It serves to highlight the benefits of working with your fellow neighbors: state, county and businesses.”

Olson said, in talking of the tribe, “We must maximize every opportunity and leverage every economic advantage we have—and we have many.” Those advantages include history and heritage and such natural resources as limestone, timber and water.

Executive Director of the tribe, Rebecca Miles, said the tribe had just made its first per capita payment to tribal members from gaming operations. She also pointed out that with any payment to tribal members “that money almost entirely leaves the reservation to banks, restaurants, clothing stores, for utility bills—all those things not on the reservation.” This points out the need to develop such services on the reservation “to see our dollars turn over and over.”

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Miles also discussed the Snake River Water Rights Act, finalized after 20 years of litigation, for water rights claims in the Snake River basin. One major result from that act was the recent completion of a nearly $9 million state-of-the-art waste-to-water treatment facility in Lapwai to replace a 40-year outdated lagoon system. “There was no room for one more person to flush the toilet,” Miles said, explaining the need for this new facility.

“Now we can grow. We can plan and we ‘ll have a way to bring in revenue as well,” Miles said.

Moffet added, “We’ll be able to encourage and recruit businesses to come to the reservation to enjoy the tax benefits and infrastructure benefits the tribe enjoys and provides for these businesses.”

Numerous speakers from a number of tribes contributed to the discussions over the two-day meeting.

On day one, Quanah Spencer, a Native attorney for Williams & Kastner, a law firm in Seattle, Washington, served as the keynote speaker. His thought-provoking comments dated back to the Walla Walla Treaty of 1855 negotiated between Governor Stevens and the tribal people.

Article 3 of the treaty stated, “If necessary, for the public convenience, roads may be run through the said reservation, and on the other hand, the right of way, with free access from the same to the nearest public highway, is secured to them, in common with the citizens of the United States, to travel upon all public highways.”

Spencer said the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has interpreted that to mean, at least with the Yakama Tribe, it allows individual tribal members and the tribal government to engage in travel and trade equated to commercial uses, largely free of any state taxation, state conditions, fees or licenses as a part of that process. That decision, “did not tie back to our own conceptions of what it was in 1855. The right to engage in travel and trade would change and is fluid enough to encompass future endeavors. It didn’t say what those endeavors were. The responsibility falls back upon individual tribal members and tribes to exercise their commercial right to travel and trade under those treaties. Are they going to use internet? Are they going to use wire line? Are they going to use rail?”

“I think the states don’t recognize that most of these Steven treaty tribes like Yakama, Nez Perce, and Umatilla actually possess this right and it’s never been quantified. The states aren’t going to do it because they risk losing a whole revenue stream which they’ve been able to tap into, like in my instance law license fees.”

In another vein, Spencer commented, “We need to get out of this hole of relying on contraband economies to generate business. We’re relying on gaming. We’re relying on cigarettes. We need to move away from these economies and start looking towards true sustainable goods, products and services that will sustain our people long term.”