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No lines are drawn on Christmas spirit

In most tribes, social services departments just seem to take over this time of year.

Food drives, fund-raising events, volunteer work and special services fill up the calendars of workers already busy with caseloads and seminars and everyday duties.

But the joy of Christmas giving makes all the work worthwhile.

At the Spokane tribe near Wellpinit, everybody knows Christmas is just around the corner when the tribal council gives the annual administrative leave for tribal members to participate in Wood Getting Day.

Anyone with a truck, an axe, a chainsaw and a willing pair of hands is invited to help split and load up cords of firewood for non-Native or non-member reservation residents who need the wood for heat through the winter.

Non-members can't qualify for assistance programs such as the Energy Assistance Program. And many have neither the means to gather the wood for themselves or the money to heat their homes in any other way.

Deb Ost, who runs the Energy Assistance Program for the tribe, helps coordinate the tribe's forestry service personnel and volunteers who go out onto the reservation and cut trees and haul them out of the forests to a central area. On Wood Getting Day everybody who wants to help chop, split and deliver shows up and goes to work.

Last year 15 families gratefully received freshly split, dry firewood.

"We're still taking names," says Ost. "We usually don't get a full list until the day we go out. People call in if they know somebody that might need a bit. And some don't want a whole cord. They just want something to get them by for now, so we go ahead and give it to them."

In addition to supplying heat for those in need during the winter, the tribe's social services department coordinates a fund-raising stick-ball tournament every Thanksgiving to raise money for Christmas baskets.

This year the department is putting together around 60 baskets, each with a ham or turkey and a whole bunch of goodies for families that need them.

And then there are the members of the Spirit of Caring Committee who do special volunteer work all year long. At Christmas each volunteer adopts a family and buys gifts for the children.

"It's a small community, so we know the needy families in the area," says Rod McCoy, assistant social services director and committee member. "We do raffles and raise money and then we split the money and supply food baskets and try to get gifts for the kids.

"Whether they are Indian or non-Indian or Spokane it doesn't matter. As long as they have kids and they are in need they get help."

At the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Christmas is being coordinated a little differently this year.

Instead of just tribal services personnel coordinating with social services and recreation departments, all the tribal departments have combined efforts with an elder advisory group, the Yellow Hawk Clinic, the tribal health center and the gaming resort to sponsor Christmas events.

"This is the first year we went out and tried to solicit other departments to help us to either cough up the money or cough up the products," says social services manager Koko Hufford. "Everybody's been very generous. And by generous I mean they're trying to stay within a $500 budget. But it's made all the difference. With all the departments doing it, it gives us what we need."

This season Hufford estimates 140 families will be assisted.

Of first concern are the 90 elders and other shut-ins that have no other way of providing for themselves. In addition are 32 children in different areas of foster care and child protection and 86 children who participated in day care or recreation. Gifts for these children will be distributed at a pow wow just before Christmas Day.

Six families were identified as having an enormous need and have been assigned to individuals, groups or businesses. One family, sponsored by employees of Northwest Pacific Corp., is headed by a single mother with three children who had taken in seven other children from other broken families.

All across the Northwest, tribal members described a wide variety of programs reaching out to families on the reservations. Most included services for non-members and non-Native families as well.

"A lot of them are community members and they've been here for years," says Ost. "And we just don't feel you can draw a line right there for blood and all that."

The Swinomish tribe, which has become well known for its close government-to-government relations with its neighbors in the town of La Conner, has coordinated services with the local Kiwanis Club. About 250 households, Native and non-Native, will receive grocery certificates from local stores.

The local Fred Myer is supplying 186 Swinomish children with gift certificates. The tribe supplies candy bags to children and elders and distributes a smoked fish to every household on the reservation.

In some areas tribes are pitching in to help county organizations.

Marilyn Scott, chairman of the Upper Skagit reservation, says the tribe is joining with Skagit County and the local communities of Sedro Woolie and Mount Vernon to meet the needs of families that have suffered from lay-offs from major corporations like Boeing and the department store, the Bon March?.

Although only an estimated 5 percent of the tribe's population is affected, Scott says the shock to the area has been "amazing." Her tribe is working with the Skagit Valley Community Christmas Fund and three other organizations to help make sure people don't go without.