Snoqualmie Tribe buys ancestral Snoqualmie Falls from Muckleshoot for $125 million

Frank Hopper

The Snoqualmie Tribe say they purchased their sacred ancestral land and two businesses from the Muckleshoot Tribe to stop development and construction projects

When the Salish Lodge was built on sacred Snoqualmie land in 1916, Indians were not allowed inside. Now the Snoqualmie tribe owns it.

Tribal Chair Robert de los Angeles made the announcement at a press conference Friday from a viewpoint overlooking Snoqualmie Falls.

Snoqualmie Tribe Vice-Chair Michael Ross speaks at a tribal press conference held at Snoqualmie Falls on Friday.
Snoqualmie Tribe Vice-Chair Michael Ross speaks at a tribal press conference held at Snoqualmie Falls on Friday.Photo: Frank Hopper

“The Snoqualmie Indian Tribe is pleased to announce that we have purchased the Salish Lodge and the 45 acres of adjacent property from the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe,” de los Angeles told the assembled journalists. “As of yesterday, the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe is now the legal, official owner.”

The Salish Lodge is located at the head of the 268-foot Snoqualmie Falls on the Snoqualmie River, in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains of Western Washington state. The tribe’s purchase includes the Salish Lodge and Spa, the Snoqualmie Falls Gift Shop, and a total of 45 acres of land around the Falls.

The tribe paid $125 million to the Muckleshoot Tribe for the land and businesses. The Muckleshoot bought them in 2007 for $62.5 million from Gateway Cascades, a holding company for the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Association.

Bought to protect, not develop

Unlike much of corporate America, the Snoqualmie Tribe, the S·dukʷalbixʷ, the People of the Moon, did not buy the land to develop it. They say they bought it to prevent any development unless the tribe gives consent.

“Snoqualmie Falls and the surrounding area is a sacred site,” said de los Angeles.

“Snoqualmie Falls is central to the tribe’s history, culture, spiritual practice and identity of the Snoqualmie people. Its preservation and protection is of utmost importance to the tribe. One year ago the city of Snoqualmie approved the construction of nearly 200 residences and another 200-room hotel. Today we have permanently stopped that development from moving forward by purchasing this land, ensuring that nothing happens on the land without Snoqualmie Tribe’s consent.”

The tribe’s relationship with the city of Snoqualmie and with the Muckleshoot Tribe was strained due to their opposition to development. The Muckleshoot’s plan to develop the land into residences and a hotel would have brought in an estimated $1 million dollars a year in additional tax revenue for the city.

In a separate interview after the press conference, Snoqualmie Mayor Matt Larson explained to Indian Country Today that Gateway Cascades had originally signed an agreement with the city to develop an area above Snoqualmie Falls with a conference center, a hotel and about 175 residential homes in 2004.

“So that set for them some high-level legal entitlements for the developer to do that project. And the project was important to the city,” Mayor Larson said.

The city backed development, putting it in conflict with the Snoqualmie Tribe, which held rallies, spoke out at meetings, and circulated petitions against it. Later, when Gateway Cascades sold the land, the Muckleshoot and the Snoqualmie both bid on it and the Muckleshoot won.

Despite the Muckleshoot’s early statements that they purchased the land in 2007 to protect it from development, they announced in 2016 they were going ahead with the development originally planned by Gateway Cascades.

“Unfortunately,” Mayor Larson continued, “with the purchase by the Muckleshoot Tribe, that future project became a source of divisiveness because the Snoqualmie were opposed to it given the sacred nature of this. It became a source of acrimony between the two tribes, which is unfortunate because they’re related with aunts and uncles and cousins.”

“The Falls is like a church”

Tribal Council Secretary Melynda Digre explained to Indian Country Today the importance of the Falls to the Snoqualmie and other tribes in the area.

“We’re up here in Snoqualmie. I’m part of the Moses family, the upper Snoqualmie, and it’s our relations that are buried here in this hillside. And to know that they can rest in peace and be in peace is such a relief to me.”

Snoqualmie Tribal Council Secretary Melynda Digre.
Snoqualmie Tribal Council Secretary Melynda Digre. Photo: Frank Hopper

When asked why the tribe feels so strongly about the land around Snoqualmie Falls, Digre described a bit about the area’s history.

“This whole area around the Falls is very sacred. Actually, several tribes have come and gathered here and it would be a time of peace and a time of healing. Marriages took place here, numerous ceremonies. And we buried our loved ones closest to our sacred site. If you can think of it, the Falls is like a church. So next to a church is burial grounds. The area they were interested in developing is that site.”

Pioneering Snoqualmie elder and former Tribal Chair Chief Andy de los Angeles, who brought the tribe from the brink of extinction, looks out at Snoqualmie Falls.
Screen capture of a YouTube video posted by the Snoqualmie Tribe

On the day of the press conference, the flow of water over the Falls was low. But two weeks prior, after a period of intense rain and flooding, the Falls roared with water crashing down the 268-foot cliff. Clouds of mist rose up from its base.

The Snoqualmie consider the Falls to be the source of creation and the mist carries prayers up to the Creator. Surrounded by a canyon of greenery, the Falls is the centerpiece of a beautiful, natural cathedral created by Grandmother Earth, which offers the elixir of life, water as mist, up to the Creator in the sky.

The little tribe that could

With a population currently somewhere between 500 and 600 members, the Snoqualmie Tribe now has a robust economic base centered around the nearby 170,000 square-foot Snoqualmie Casino, which opened in 2008. But the tribe nearly went out of existence only a few decades before.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs revoked the Snoqualmie’s federal recognition in 1953 saying the tribe was not eligible because it had no land. Although the tribe signed the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliot, it was not allowed a reservation and most of its members were forced to relocate to the Tulalip reservation.

But due to the efforts of tribal leaders such as Chief Andy de los Angeles, brother of current Tribal Chair Robert de los Angeles, the tribe held itself together, opening an office in Fall City and methodically taking the steps necessary to regain their culture and their federal recognition.

Snoqualmie Tribal Chair Robert de los Angeles (left) speaks with former Tribal Chair and Snoqualmie elder Chief Andy de los Angeles
Snoqualmie Tribal Chair Robert de los Angeles (left) speaks with former Tribal Chair and Snoqualmie elder Chief Andy de los AngelesPhoto: Frank Hopper

On October 6, 1999, almost exactly 20 years ago, the Bureau of Indian Affairs finally regranted federal recognition to the Snoqualmie Tribe. Then the tribe succeeded in having some land put into trust and eventually built their casino. Over the years they diversified and expanded their economic development to the point where they became able to buy back the land they’d once lost in their bidding war with the Muckleshoot Tribe.

The Muckleshoot Tribe broke ground in April on an 18-story hotel and casino in the town of Auburn and have signed agreements with the Seattle Seahawks and with the National Hockey League to help raise their tribe’s visibility. This consolidation of the Muckleshoot’s economic base around their new casino presumably motivated the tribe to abandon the troublesome development project they planned in Snoqualmie.

Any animosity between the Snoqualmie and the Muckleshoot is not apparent in the publicity material made available about the Snoqualmie’s purchase. The press release states the agreement was made by two sovereign tribal governments and “the Muckleshoot Tribe has supported the restoration of sacred and culturally significant land to the Snoqualmie people.”

Digre feels the Muckleshoot’s 2007 purchase of the land “was just business.”

But far from aligning themselves with professional sports teams and buying the sacred land of other tribes, the Snoqualmie take as their business the protection of the land they originally arose from, that they were once exiled from, and to which they are now returning. To them, their business is protecting the sacred, natural cathedral that gave rise to their people and their culture.

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Frank Hopper is a Tlingit, Kaagwaantaan, freelance writer, born in Juneau, Alaska, and raised in Seattle. He now lives in Tacoma.

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Great story man!