A small matter of Indian trust - Issues are resolved regarding a .79 acre of trust land

After resolving a land trust issue, descendants of the late Roberta Law Ross are getting some economic development help from the Quinault Nation. The Nation is investing about $750,000 in redeveloping the site including a convenience store, possibly like the Q-Mart pictured here.

Richard Walker

The Quinault Nation is investing about $750,000 in redeveloping the site and is opening a Quinault Nation Smoke Shop, and convenience store

A Native American family—long hampered in their efforts to develop their patch of Indian trust land in the city of Bremerton, Washington—is getting some economic development help from the Quinault Nation.

The Quinault Nation is leasing the land from the descendants of the late Roberta Law Ross, who was Quinault and Samish. The Nation is investing about $750,000 in redeveloping the site. 

Quinault’s contractor is clearing the property of RVs, including one destroyed in a fire; removing seven trees from the otherwise largely forested land; and demolishing Ross’s 92-year-old home. According to the bid documents, the contractor is installing frontage improvements, water and sewer extensions, roads for access and egress, and stormwater treatment.

The contractor will then build a new Quinault Nation-owned and operated smoke shop/convenience store there. The design and specifications were not being made available. 

The project is being overseen by Charlie Hensley, retail operations manager for Quinault Enterprises. Hensley referred all questions to the Quinault Nation President’s office. Among the Quinault Nation’s off-reservation enterprises is the Q-Mart convenience store in Aberdeen, Washington, but Hensley would not comment on whether the Bremerton store would be a Q-Mart in name, services or design.

Kevin Chambers, Ross’s great-grandson and one of 15 living heirs, said of the lease agreement with Quinault, “It’s going to be good for us generationally and good for the neighborhood.”

The venture is unique in that the land is 0.79 acre and is located not on a reservation but in a now-urban neighborhood in a city of 41,000. It is located 105 miles east of the Quinault Reservation and is within the historical territory of the Suquamish Tribe.

The property’s size, location in an urban area and isolation from a reservation have long hampered the descendants’ efforts to pursue economic development there. Because it’s Indian trust land, the land is considered Indian country and outside city jurisdiction. City services—as well as curb, gutter, and sidewalk—stop at the property line. Past uses on the property—RV site leases and fireworks sales—raised the concern of city officials, who saw those uses as conflicting with allowed neighborhood land uses or posing a fire risk.

"We're excited about the property being revitalized," Bremerton Mayor Greg Wheeler told the Kitsap Sun. "This will be a much better use for the property than what was here before."

A complicated history

Ross (1899-1960) was born in Jamestown, a S’Klallam town on the Olympic Peninsula, the daughter of an S’Klallam father and a Samish mother. Her father, Frank Law, later settled on the Quinault Reservation, became a Quinault Nation citizen and served on the council there in the 1920s.

At that time, Ross was living in Bremerton with her husband and infant son. Her husband, Rufus Ross, worked at the U.S. Navy shipyard in Bremerton. The couple later divorced and the Navy, seeking to expand the shipyard, acquired Roberta Ross’s property in exchange for a three-quarter-acre parcel that it placed in trust for her and her descendants.

The U.S. Code defines “Indian country” as all land within the limits of a reservation, all dependent Native American communities, and “all Indian allotments.”

The site was in the then-undeveloped outskirts of town. But the outskirts soon changed, particularly during World War II and the post-war years. The population of Bremerton grew from less than 10,170 in 1930 to 15,134 in 1940 and 27,678 in 1950. The population is about 41,000 today.

The 1.5-story, three-bedroom, one bath house built in 1927 was Ross’s home until her passing in 1960. Successive generations lived in the home and, in the mid-1990s, began leasing spaces on the property for RVs. The City of Bremerton attempted to stop the leasing but found it had no jurisdiction.

Ross property
Photo of property: The U.S. acquired this land in the 1920s for Roberta Law Ross, Quinault/Samish, in exchange for her property on Bremerton’s waterfront. The Quinault Nation is now leasing the site from Ross’s descendants and building a convenience store there. The house is being demolished, seven trees removed and the site cleaned up to make way for the new development.

When the family established a fireworks stand in the 2000s, the City of Bremerton sued, saying the sale of fireworks not considered “safe and sane” posed a fire risk to nearby residences. A fire in an RV on the property only furthered the city’s resolve to prevent fireworks sales there. In 2016, a district court judge ruled the city had regulatory authority over fireworks sales on the site, even though the land is considered Indian country and outside the city‘s jurisdiction.

The Chambers family reached out to the Samish Nation for possible economic development help, but Samish officials declined to become involved in an economic venture there because the land is within the historical territory of the Suquamish Tribe.

Then, a consultant—Ron Ragge, formerly of Hollywood Park—took up the family’s cause and began seeking the partnership of a Native Nation to build a casino on the property. The Suquamish Tribe, which had handled licensing of fireworks sales there because the site is within its historical territory, opposed any gaming facility on the site. Suquamish issued a statement that any gaming venture there by another Native Nation would be “an infringement upon the Suquamish Tribe’s sovereign rights.”

The casino project was abandoned the following year, but Ragge, the family and an undisclosed third party signed a non-disclosure agreement and survey work on the site was done. In addition, attorneys for the Suquamish Tribe and the city met, discussed and/or corresponded more than once regarding the property.

Several efforts to get a comment from Quinault Nation President Fawn Sharp and Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman were unsuccessful.

Chambers, who once lived on the property and now lives nearby, said he hopes some cultural art or other interpretive material will be installed on the site so visitors can understand its distinctive history.

“I hope so. That property is so unique,” he said. 

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Richard Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is a correspondent reporting from Anacortes, Washington. Contact him at richardmollywalker@gmail.com.