Snoqualmie search for a land base

FALL CITY, Wash. - Snoqualmie tribal headquarters are set up in rented office space only a few miles from the spectacular Snoqulamie Falls.

To the west lies Bellevue, Seattle's most expensive suburb. Issaquah, a rapidly expanding commuter town, is southwest. To the east press Weyerhaeuser timberlands and the National Forest lands of the Cascade Mountain range. To the north lie expensive farming lands and even higher priced executive estates.

Somewhere in this press of urban expansion, the newly recognized Snoqualamie Tribe is struggling to find a home and build an economic base.

"Right now it's just one step at a time," says Joseph Mullen, tribal chairman. "Taking care of our people is the main objective. We're trying to get our HUD started and our Indian child welfare started and medical for the people ... but especially HUD. We're working on that drastically, because a lot of our elders live in pretty poor conditions. We've just got to get them homes."

Awarded federal recognition last October, the tribe, which numbers a few more than 1,000 people, was initially granted $155,000 to set up programs and a new tribal administration. No more money will be forthcoming from the federal government until the tribe has its programs in place and can make formal applications.

Despite the lack of funding, tribal leaders are forging ahead, looking for independent sources of income, examining different business strategies and investment arenas. They hired CEO John Halliday to handle business operations. Several smaller projects which can involve tribal members, such as a fish processing plant and a smokehouse, have already been approved by the council.

The tribe's location, which makes formation of a large land base for a reservation so difficult, at the same time offers strategic positioning for a wide range of business opportunities.

With Microsoft headquarters just 14 miles away, the formation of a business and destination resort is a major potential. Founder and chairman of International Conference Resorts Inc., Gene Keluche, recently met with tribal leaders to examine just such a possibility. The tribe is also considering whether a casino operation would be suitable.

Other imaginative business opportunities lie in the direction of free-trade, the Internet and other potentially lucrative, high-tech but inexpensive start-up operations,they say.

"We're looking at anything that's gonna give us that economic development," says former tribal chairman and current council member, Andy de los Angeles. "We are trying not to just depend on state and federal funds. We are going to develop our own opportunities. ... I mean, Amazon.com was just a guy who came up with an idea about warehousing materials and books so that they can be readily available on the Internet. So I think that, as people in our situation as a tribe, we can take something like that a step farther."

The tribe's 50-year struggle for federal recognition is proving its greatest asset. With no land base, no federal assistance and no political viability for so many years, tribal members were forced to be resourceful. Many are independent business owners who will be in a position to help the tribe as it develops.

De los Angeles said the last thing the Snoqualmie want now, is to become an institutionally organized, federally dependent tribe. "One of the biggest pitfalls I've recognized is that federally recognized tribes that have been recognized for a long time (are) so dependent on the federal government and state services, that they give up creating opportunities.

"The situation ... with us not having a whole bunch, instead of looking at it as a disadvantage, I look at it as an opportunity for us to step up into something."

Another advantage is good relations with local non-Indian groups. The tribe has been careful over the years to be supportive of local issues.

Recent development of Bright Creek - a tributary that once provided abundant Kokanee salmon to Snoqualmie Indian settlements, is an example. The tribe has recently joined neighborhood activists in fighting two housing developments that threaten the environmental stability of this sensitive region of the Sammamish Plateau.

And in the past, local non-Indian groups assisted the tribe in its fight for federal recognition. But now that the tribe is looking at developing a land base and potentially highly commercial operations such as a casino, some of that outside support is crumbling. The tribe potentially faces stiff opposition from King County council representatives in the years to come.

"I'm just hoping that the rest of the population of King County will speak up and say, 'Hey, on one side we've been supporting the Snoqualmie tribe for federal recognition and their identity in the history of the area, and at the same time we're denying them their future?'" says de los Angeles. "I think a lot of politicians will step back from that."

De los Angles also points out that it is up to the tribal council to remind everybody of the opportunities the tribe is going to create. "Your second biggest employer in South King County, after Boeing, is the Muckleshoot Casino," he says. "Last year they pulled in $100 million. The tribe got $25 million of that and $75 million went back out into the community. And we're going to be in a similar situation ... the Snoqualmie tribe, with this federal recognition, is going to create some business opportunities that everybody can take advantage of."

Once one of the largest tribes in the Puget Sound area and the principal signer of the Point Elliott Treaty in 1855, the Snoqualmie ceded a large territory from Snoqualmie Pass to up to the port city of Everett. It was never paid for the land.

Mullen says that before World War II, the tribe was promised a long, high, forested ridge of land extending between the towns of Fall City and Carnation. When the United States went to war, the chief decided to wait until after the fighting was over to press the issue. "They put us off ever since," Mullen says.

Now the tribe is talking with Weyerhaeuser and other large land holders in the region about buying a land base for a reservation. Even if forced to locate farther east, past Snoqualmie Pass, its economic viability will remain a potent one.

Last October's recognition was the second time in two years the tribe was notified it had won formal recognition by the federal government. After the first announcement, the Tulalip Tribes in Marysville filed appeals, claiming they were the true descendants of the Snoqualmie Tribe. Those appeals were rejected by the Department of Interior.