Learning to be Tulalip and Native American

November 20, 2022 6:28 PM
  • Ken Adams
November 20, 2022 6:28 PM

The Tulalip tribes are once again breaking new ground.

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Tulalip prides itself in being a leader in self-determination and preserving its traditions without sacrificing sovereignty. This time, Tulalip is operating a K-12 school on tribal land. The timing is interesting. The treatment of indigenous children in religious and government schools during the 19th and early 20th centuries has been under scrutiny lately. The issue surfaced when the graves of hundreds of indigenous children were discovered in Canada, exposing a network of abuse, racism, and a brutal attempt to turn Native children into obedient white-like citizens. The system was amazingly similar in Canada, the United States, and Australia.

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School was the best known of the so-called Indian schools in the United States. It was founded in 1879 with an express motto: “Kill the Indian, save the child.” Carlisle sought to teach Native children practical skills and the values of the American social-political system. There were Indian schools in every section of the country with a tribal presence. In northern Nevada, it was the Stewart Indian School. The school recently became infamous when Ku Stevens, an 18-year-old high-school student and runner, made international news by running 50 miles through the Nevada desert from Stewart to his native reservation. His run was in honor of his grandfather, who escaped from Stewart three times, running home each time.

Tulalip had its regional school that followed the national model. The schools were not meant to educate Native Americans, but to teach them to be productive members of society. First, of course, the Indian had to be “killed”; that meant cutting their hair, changing their names, forbidding the Native languages and religions, and isolating them from their families and tribes. As we now know, many died at school from disease, abuse, and loneliness; they were buried on the grounds of the school and often their parents never were never even informed. If they survived and returned home, they were strangers. Many simply drifted into a life of poverty in a nearby city.

Tulalip was deeply affected by the system. But contrary to the intention of the system and the Dawes Act, Tulalip and the other tribes did not succumb.

The Tulalip Tribes is a combination of six different tribes in the Pacific Northwest. There is no written record, but various units of the tribe have been living in the area for as long as 5,000 years. In 1855, the Tulalip Tribes signed the Point Elliot Treaty, giving up most of their homeland and putting the tribe under federal protection on a small reservation near Marysville, Washington. The descendants of the original Tulalip Tribes carry that heritage with pride and determination. So while some members failed to return home, others did return. They joined those who remained on the reservation and set to work preserving their independence and culture. It took about 150 years after the treaty for Tulalip to develop a form of financial independence, but they did.

Tulalip’s financial independence began with a contract with Boeing for the use of some tribal land. That was followed by a bingo parlor; Tulalip, like many tribes in the country, was eager to take advantage of bingo as a source of revenue. When the National Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed in 1988, Tulalip began laying plans to open a casino.

I was hired by the tribe as a consultant early in 1990. It was a fascinating experience for me; the head of the bingo operation, Wayne Williams, took me under his wing, as it were. Wayne taught me about the tribe’s history, culture, politics, and priorities. The tribe had several priorities, but one was primary: to be the first tribe in the state with a casino. In order to achieve it, the tribe was willing to make some compromises, such as not holding out for slot machines.

The second priority was to preserve and honor its culture and history, personified by a canoe. It was a joke During the planning, the joke came down to, “Think canoe.” Only it wasn’t a joke. The tribe expected its casino to reflect Tulalip heritage by honoring its canoes.

Wayne helped me understand those two priorities, along with a third. Unlike the commercial casinos of my experience and background, Tulalip was less interested in making a profit than it was in offering employment to its members and social services to its elders; profit was never a priority at all.

The process of negotiating the tribal-state compact and planning the casino was not instantaneous, but it did get done. In 1992, the tribe’s first casino opened. Eventually, the Tulalip built three casinos and a resort-hotel.

In 2001, the tribe added another important financial piece when it developed an incorporated municipality called Quil Ceda Village, a shopping center. The tribe had originally hoped to collect the sales tax that normally would have gone to the state. However, the state did not agree and sued. In 2020 after years of litigation, the tribe agreed to a portion of the tax, 0.5 percent. That is not what the tribe wanted, nor is apt to be the last word on the subject.

Since the 1930s when the first members began to return from Indian school, the tribe has been working toward a unique vision of its identity. This school will be another step down that road. Students will not be taught to be farmers, carpenters, or maids; nor will they be forced to cut their hair, change their names, and adopt an alien religion. I haven’t seen the curriculum, but based on the lessons Wayne Williams taught me, I am pretty sure the students will learn about being Tulalip and Native Americans, as well the conventional 3-Rs curriculum.