TULALIP, Wash. – John McCoy is a unique voice of influence in Olympia, the capital of Washington state: He is the only Washington Native in the state Legislature. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1981, then worked as a computer technician in the White House from 1982 – ’85. He is manager of Quil Ceda Village, an economically booming municipality on the Tulalip Reservation.
McCoy, a member of the Tulalip tribes, represents the 38th District in the state House of Representatives; his district includes Everett, Marysville and Tulalip. McCoy, a Democrat, and his Republican challenger, Kim Halvorson, were unopposed for their respective party nominations in the Sept. 19 primary. McCoy outpolled Halvorson 8,943 to 5,274, a harbinger of a third term after the Nov. 7 general election.
In the House, McCoy has devoted himself to issues of statewide importance – agriculture, economic development, education, health, labor and trade.
But he has also worked to make sure that the first peoples of his state have equal opportunities in all aspects of Washington life. He worked to include American Indian culture and history in public school curricula. The state is considering building another four-year university north of Seattle, and McCoy is lobbying to have it built in the 38th District. He was re-elected chairman of the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators this year, and he led the formation of a minority caucus to promote legislation on the state and federal levels to improve health care access.
In the House, McCoy is vice chairman of the Select Committee on Hood Canal, and is a member of the Economic Development, Agriculture and Trade Committee, and the Commerce and Labor Committee.
Indian Country Today: Tribal governments and the state of Washington recently reached a compromise that allows the state to tax fuel sales on reservations. And the U.S. Congress is considering a law that would limit how tribal governments use casino revenues for campaign contributions. Do these moves chip away at the sovereignty of tribal governments?
McCoy: Yes. But a congressional report said that tribes were not involved [in influence-buying with campaign contributions]. It was all Jack Abramoff’s operation. The report said tribes didn’t do anything wrong and there’s no need to change how tribes operate. (Abramoff, a lobbyist, confessed to bilking tribal governments and buying political influence with campaign contributions, including contributions that were unreported, in violation of federal law.)
ICT: In November 2005, Washington voters approved Initiative 901, which bans smoking in and near public buildings. Does Initiative 901 apply to buildings and ceremonies on reservations? If so, how will tribal governments protect their sovereignty on this issue?
McCoy: I asked for an attorney general’s opinion on this, and he said it doesn’t affect tribes on reservations.
ICT: Quil Ceda Village contributes sales tax revenue to the state of Washington, yet the state doesn’t return a portion of that revenue to the village government like it does Quil Ceda’s neighboring city, Marysville, and other nontribal local governments. What is being done to ensure Quil Ceda Village receives the same treatment as other municipalities?
McCoy: We are still having discussions with the state. The state is willing to work with us government-to-government. But when it comes to sales tax, it’s a matter of control. I won a 93 – 3 vote in the House last year to give Quil Ceda a share of sales and use tax, but it was DOA in the Senate.
ICT: You led the effort to develop a culture-based reading curriculum, so American Indian children see themselves and their culture reflected in stories that are used in teaching them to read. What success stories are you hearing regarding the reading curriculum, and which school districts are using it?
McCoy: Quite a few, but we still have a lot of work in that regard. School districts could have done it on their own; Port Angeles schools have been [using a culture-based reading curriculum] for 10-plus years. What the law did was raise awareness of the need for it. There is a lot of interest in it. Tulalip and Kalispel are working together on a high-tech solution, a Web-based product for fourth-graders – reading, language, and who are Indians.
ICT: What is the status of efforts to require the inclusion of American Indian history in public schools?
McCoy: On May 25, [state Superintendent of Public Instruction] Terry Bergeson signed a Memorandum of Understanding that encourages school boards and tribal councils to promote increased understanding of Native history, culture and government. In her own comments, Bergeson said the MOU is stronger than the legislation.
ICT: What are you hearing from Native and non-Native educators about the need for such a curriculum?
McCoy: They say it’s needed, but they want dollars to come with it; they don’t want it to be an unfunded mandate. I think we’ve got the governor’s ear.
ICT: Several Washington tribes, such as Duwamish and Snohomish, are seeking federal recognition. Despite the lack of a government-to-government relationship, these tribal governments still work to meet the cultural, physical and social needs of their people. What can the state do to ensure they are able to continue to do so?
McCoy: I’m not doing anything to prevent them from doing anything. They tried to get me to put them in the bill [to require the inclusion of Native history in public schools]. But I had some people come out of the woodwork, saying they were members of tribes that I didn’t know existed, so I didn’t want to go there. I decided to just limit it to federally recognized tribes. But I did tell the Seattle school board, “If you don’t talk to Duwamish, it would be a disservice to Duwamish.”
ICT: The governor’s Puget Sound Initiative would spend $42 million to develop a plan to make Puget Sound cleaner by the year 2020. Hood Canal would be a major beneficiary of that effort, and you are vice chairman of the Select Committee on Hood Canal. What role would tribal governments play in this effort to clean these waters that are so central to the life and culture of Coast Salish people?
McCoy: The tribes are involved in this process and the governor understands we have to be there. We have a common interest in ensuring that our waters are clean.
ICT: What common concerns do Native and non-Native people share in Olympia this legislative session?
McCoy: Transportation, education, access to health care.
ICT: Is the Native voice getting stronger in Olympia today, and do you see a future with more American Indians in policy-making roles on the state level?
McCoy: I think the House is more in tune because I’m there. In general, there is a willingness to listen and work with tribes now. And Claudia Kauffman [Nez Perce] won the Democratic Party nomination and has an excellent chance of winning the state Senate seat in the 47th District.
ICT: What is needed to strengthen the Native voice in government?
McCoy: We need to get more Natives involved in government. I encourage a lot of kids to go through the public administration department at Evergreen State College. They can earn an MPA in tribal governance and go back and work for tribes.
<i>Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at email@example.com.