Big Game Hunters

Breaking into Washington's Native American gaming gold rush can be a wild west circus. Just ask the Snoqualmie Tribe.

Snoqualmie Tribal Council member Ray Mullen is a large man with a handlebar mustache and a mane of graying hair that cascades practically down to his waist. Forty-six years old, he wears turquoise and silver earrings and a "three-piece suit"—jeans, a blue T-shirt, and a long-sleeve denim shirt—matched to his insistence that people accept him for who he is.

One sunny day in late August, Mullen arrives at the home of his brother Joseph, a one-time tribal chair who lives on a former dairy farm turned bottling plant that sprawls amiably against a hillside in the tiny Snoqualmie Valley town of Stillwater. Ray, who heads the tribe's archaeology and economic development programs, is on a mission: Human remains linked to the tribe have been found on a construction site, as frequently happens in this artifact-rich region. He has asked his brother, a jack-of-all-trades, to build funeral boxes for them out of the red- cedar logs that are piled on Joseph's property. Joseph has spent the morning sawing planks and covering himself in cedar shavings, when Ray comes to check how things are going.

Sitting on a makeshift bench outside Joseph's workshop, Ray says he can't say on which construction site the remains have been found. "Once people have an area, they'll start looking," he says. He's referring to artifact thieves, and talks about the day— June 3, 2000—when the construction of a Fall City soccer field came to a halt because of more than 1,000 artifact flakes that appeared in the wake of a backhoe. The tribe made sure a fence was put up. "That night, someone cut through the fence and started digging," he recalls.

Ray literally carries his interest in archaeology with him at all times. Around his neck hangs a leather pouch that contains a 400-year-old stone with a sharp edge signifying its use as a tool. "It lets me know where I come from," he says.

Ray also has compiled numerous traditional songs from elders and other tribes. Concerned with authenticity, he has rejected what he calls "powwow music," which utilizes big round drums. Instead, he uses the kind of hand drums and wooden boxes that the elder Snoqualmie traditionally played at potlatches and other ceremonies.

In the late '90s, soon after the then-landless tribe was recognized by the federal government, he started thinking about a very different kind of project. Talk of opening a casino had begun to circulate among the Snoqualmie. Initially, Ray resisted the idea. He didn't object to gambling per se, given that there were traditional Native American forms of the activity. But, he says, "I thought, how commercial. Do we want to just jump out and start being that way?" He wanted to start other types of businesses that would employ tribal members, perhaps getting into recycling.

Other tribal members thought different projects should take precedence over starting a casino. Sandra Phillips, sister to Chief Jerry Enick, says that a reservation for people to live on would have been her first priority. With tribal members scattered throughout the state after 150 years without a land base, Phillips says, "We have to get reacquainted." Former chair Joseph Mullen maintained a personal distaste for gambling. "I don't play with my money when I have a family to support," he says. "I don't believe in fate. I don't believe in luck. I believe in hard work."

Then the tribe studied projected revenue figures for different economic development scenarios, including the kind of small businesses Ray favored. When the numbers were read aloud, they all pointed to one thing: a casino.

"The numbers were astronomically different," concedes Ray, who is now so occupied with casino work that he wears a Bluetooth ear clip to access his cell phone while he drives. "You let your personal feelings go."

But the process of getting the Snoqualmies' casino off the ground has proved both heady and arduous, a tumultuous ride through a Wild West gold rush that has buoyed—or, in some instances, plagued—the Native American gaming industry.

Stepping over thickets of brambles and ferns at the casino site on the outskirts of the town of Snoqualmie, tribal administrator Matt Mattson discusses the status of the proposed casino. Some things, like plans for the look and feel of the facility, are in place.

"We're going to keep the topography," Mattson says, reaching the top of a hillside overlooking busy Southeast North Bend Way. "The main entrance will be cut through the berm."

In March, the Snoqualmies' undeveloped 56-acre parcel was granted reservation status by the federal government. It will not, however, be a reservation in the traditional sense—that is, a place where tribal members live. Instead, this reservation will be the casino, slated to employ 700 people—slightly more than the entire Snoqualmie population, which will continue to be spread out across the Snoqualmie Valley and the state.

It will be the closest tribal casino to Seattle, a scant half-hour drive away, even less for those living in the affluent, populous suburbs of the Eastside. The 30-year-old Mattson, whose slight, boyish looks belie his sharp, to-the-point manner, points to the west, where we can see a conveniently located Interstate 90 exit, No. 27. At street level below us, a sign will announce the casino. From there, a road will wind its way back onto the property where the facility will stand. "It will be like you're entering a country club," says Mattson.

Boasting a steak house, lounge, deli, and cigar and sushi bars alongside its card tables and slot machines, the Snoqualmies' upscale casino will cater to the state's largest metropolitan population. Their architectural firm, Las Vegas–based Bergman, Walls and Associates, has matched the tribe's desire for a building in the understated style of a Northwest lodge. Most casinos don't have windows, but Casino Snoqualmie will—facing toward hulking Mount Si.

Back at Mattson's office in the tribe's Snoqualmie headquarters, one wall is covered with mock-ups of the casino's marketing concept, featuring a logo of 11 small lunar orbs clustered around a crescent. The concept plays off tribal lore that deems the Snoqualmies the "people of the moon."

"So many local tribal casinos use salmon in their branding," Mattson says. "We wanted to do something a little different."

It has taken the tribe more than six years to get this far. In late 1999, the federal government recognized the Snoqualmie tribe, 21 years after it first applied (unsuccessfully) for reservation status. But in a way, the tribe had been fighting the battle ever since it signed the 1855 Point Elliott Treaty, which ceded Native American land to the U.S. government. Despite the Snoqualmies' signature, along with those of 21 other tribes, the people of the moon never got their own land as other tribes did, forcing many tribal members to move to Tulalip and other reservations. For decades, the tribe marshaled historical and cultural arguments in its quest for legal standing. Simultaneously, it battled with Puget Sound Energy for control of Snoqualmie Falls, where the energy utility operates power plants and the tribe situates its ancient creation story. According to tribal beliefs, the mist from the falls carries people's dreams into the heavens, and the power plants are interfering with that sacred transfer. The battle with Puget Sound Energy continues in federal court.

Almost immediately upon recognition, however, the tribe shifted its focus to the biggest source of economic opportunity that has ever hit Indian country, courtesy of a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision confirming the right of Indian governments to operate gaming facilities. This reaffirmed the sovereignty of tribal governments, which operate somewhat like states or other local governments. They receive money from the feds and are bound by certain federal regulations, yet in many cases, operate their own police, fire, and court systems. By 1999, when the government finally recognized the Snoqualmies, tribal casinos in Washington state were raking in $162 million in annual revenue. Last year, the state's 25 casinos (run by 20 tribes) earned more than a billion dollars. The annual Indian Gaming Industry Report, compiled by California economist Alan Meister, ranks Washington sixth among states nationally for revenue from tribal casinos.

So the Snoqualmie tribe began the time-consuming bureaucratic process of obtaining land for its casino reservation. And it began sorting through the hordes of multimillion-dollar investors who inevitably came calling.

As it happens, though, choosing among the throngs that want to cash in on Indian gaming is something of a gamble in itself. Although tribal leaders have been extremely reluctant to talk about it, Mattson, standing on the site now, acknowledges that the tribe's partnership with Arizona investor and trucking magnate Jerry Moyes has disintegrated. Moyes has already bankrolled the tribe's casino effort to the tune of $16.5 million. But Moyes has had a few other things going on in his life of late, including a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into insider trading. He now wants the tribe to buy out his interest in the property, allowing for a return on his investment. In his void, the tribe plans to raise the financing itself. This month, three months after it was originally due to start construction on the casino, the tribe wants to begin conducting a bond offering. It is looking for underwriters, like banks, to back the tribe's offer of eight-year bonds to institutional investment companies.

"There are a lot of things that went wrong," allows Chief Enick. "We've been slowed down. But we're not giving up on this."

Sitting in a cafe at the Tacoma Sheraton Hotel, Mattson recalls his early days with the tribe, when the prospect of a casino was fresh. He's in Tacoma for the annual Northwest Indian Gaming Conference. Just back from a golf tournament that kicked off the conference, Mattson looks more the part of caddy than tribal administrator. How young he must have looked in 2000, when, as a 24-year-old fresh out of the University of Oregon law school, he arrived at the Snoqualmie tribe's modular Fall City headquarters to interview for a job dealing with land use and environmental regulations.

He is not Indian but of Finnish and Italian descent, a genetic makeup that gives him dark hair, an angular face, and a pronounced nose. His ethnicity didn't matter. In his favor, Mattson had specialized in environmental law at school. And, thinking back on it, Mattson says, there was his youth. "There were tons of experts out there," he says. "Everybody knew everything about Native American culture, or so they thought." Mattson, meanwhile, wasn't in a position to patronize tribal members or put them in a fishbowl. He was there for the job.

"He reminded me of me at that age— and nobody gave me the opportunity," says Joseph Mullen, who was the tribe's chair in 2000. Mattson appeared eager to get out there and do things, Mullen recalls, but he wasn't arrogant like many of the other 15 or 20 people he interviewed. Once hired, Mattson got busy.

"I started doing anything and everything," says Mattson. "The tribe wanted to develop a health clinic, so I got involved in negotiating with the Indian Health Service."

The tribe now runs two sliding-scale clinics, one in Carnation and another in North Bend. "The tribe wanted a housing program. I went out and got a housing director and a HUD [Department of Housing and Urban Development] grant," says Mattson, who also notes that the tribe proceeded to offer rent and utility assistance to members. "The tribe had thoughts and designs of accessing gaming opportunities and asked me to start looking at some of the aspects of that. Slowly but surely, I ended up getting involved."

Even before the tribe gained formal recognition, the calls from investors had begun coming into the Fall City modular. "I can't tell you how many investors came to us," Ray Mullen says, rattling off a list that includes Harrah's Entertainment and Station Casinos, both big Las Vegas–based players.

Here was the chance to start a casino on the fringe of a major city. Investors had already made inroads to the state, among them Harrah's, which, for a time, had managed the casino of the Upper Skagit tribe. But most tribes have phased out their management contracts in order to keep all the profits. Only two local tribes currently maintain such contracts for their casinos: the Chehalis, which has a partnership with the Connecticut gaming company Rochester Management; and the Lummi, which works with Illinois riverboat operator Merit Management.

Lummi council member Darrell Hillaire recalls how the tribe was wooed when it was thinking about opening a casino seven years ago. Situated on a reservation north of Bellingham, the Lummi tribe opened the state's first casino 22 years ago, only to see it fail when a flurry of tribes followed suit, opening casinos close to the I-5 corridor. Learning its lesson, the tribe planned to open a second casino near the freeway. A bevy of businesspeople from all over the country wanted in. Hillaire remembers being driven in a limo from Philadelphia to Atlantic City to see one prospective partner, while taking a red-eye to New York City to meet with others.

"I was in jeans and a T-shirt," he says. "There were these rich guys there, but they didn't know anything about gaming."

The Snoqualmie tribe conducted its search for investors a little differently. "I made everyone come here," Joseph Mullen says, referring to the Fall City modular. "I wanted them to see the people, see the conditions they'd be working in."

He reminisces while sitting on a bench outside his Stillwater house. Joseph Mullen comes from a family of 11 brothers and sisters. Like his father, who ran a small construction company in Issaquah, he likes starting businesses. In the early '90s, he was running a fiber- optics business, putting down cable lines on a subcontract for AT&T, when he was asked by the Snoqualmie elders to work for the tribe. "They found I didn't drink, didn't do drugs. All I did was work," he says.

Joseph is now around 50, with short gray hair and an easygoing laugh. Sporting jeans, work boots, and a pack of cigarettes in his green T-shirt pocket, he describes how he put investors at ease when they arrived in Fall City, showing them to a table laden with traditional tribal foods like fresh fruit and salmon.

"I made them all loosen their ties," he says. "I told them they were choking me. You get a person to loosen their tie, and they relax."

Arizona trucking magnate Moyes came on the scene around the year 2000 through an associate of his, Jim Miller, who had been involved in a cigarette factory started by the Squaxin Island tribe, according to Mattson. (The tribe confirms that it had an investor in the factory who is no longer involved, but declines to say whether it was Miller. Through his lawyer, Miller did not answer a request seeking comment.) Miller introduced Snoqualmie leaders to Moyes, who was then looking to reach beyond his trucking empire into Indian gaming.

Mullen says he asked Moyes "straight up" about his background. "He wasn't born into money," Mullen says, recalling how Moyes told him that he got his start as a truck driver. One subsequent legal document said that Moyes' father founded Phoenix-based Swift Transportation Co., the company that made him rich. But his story went down well with tribal members.

But why, of all the suitors with extensive gaming investment experience, did tribal members settle on Moyes, a total newcomer to the industry?

"They liked him," Mattson says simply. "I mean, why me?"

What they probably didn't like was that on June 10, 2004, Swift Transportation, one of the largest trucking companies in the U.S., revealed that Chairman, CEO, and President Moyes was the subject of an SEC inquiry into certain stock purchases. Eventually, the SEC filed a complaint charging Moyes with violations of federal securities laws. According to the complaint, Moyes attended a Swift board meeting in which members discussed the company's better-than-expected second-quarter earnings and an imminent expansion to its stock repurchase plan. Two trading days before Swift's public announcement to that effect, Moyes bought 187,000 shares of Swift stock. In September of the following year, Moyes agreed to a settlement in which he admitted no wrongdoing but acquiesced to $1.25 million in penalties and surrender of unrealized profit from the stock transactions. Having already stepped down as Swift president, he also agreed in the settlement to resign as CEO. He later stepped down as chairman, while remaining a major shareholder of the company.

Moyes' troubles didn't stop there. In spite of bullish forecasts for Swift's earnings in the middle of 2005, the company was headed for a downturn. So was another transportation company of which Moyes was chairman: Central Freight, headquartered in Waco, Texas. Sliding stock performance gave rise to class-action shareholder lawsuits against both companies, accusing them of providing misleading information in order to keep their stock prices artificially high until they inevitably crashed. Because of his leading role at both companies at the time, shareholders named Moyes as a defendant in both suits. In the Swift lawsuit, plaintiffs linked Moyes' alleged ruse to his need for financing in connection with yet another venture—his majority ownership of the National Hockey League's Phoenix Coyotes and construction of a new multimillion-dollar stadium, as well as a commercial real- estate development around it.

Moyes did not return calls to his new enterprise, Swift Aviation Group, which maintains a private air terminal and a fleet of airplanes. In March, U.S. District Court Judge Neil Wake dismissed the Swift lawsuit on the grounds that the plaintiffs failed to prove any specific misrepresentations. The Central Freight lawsuit, however, is ongoing.

But there is even more to Moyes' saga. In late 2004, Moyes became embroiled in a dispute with partner Jim Miller over ownership of two sister companies through which they were making their foray into tribal gaming: MGU LLC and MGU Development. The dispute landed in court. Ultimately, it was settled in favor of Moyes "being the 100 percent owner," according to MGU President Tom LeClaire.

Weren't all the lawsuits and the SEC investigation a red flag in regard to Moyes as he and the tribe were ostensibly forging ahead with the casino? "We asked those questions, for sure," Mattson says. "We were repeatedly told by Moyes that it wasn't an issue, [that his commitment to the tribe was] ironclad." The tribe asked for his financial statements and came away reassured that, at least as an individual, he had the money to back it up. So Moyes and the tribe continued with the task of obtaining the reservation they needed.

Nancy Keith learned from a newspaper article that the Snoqualmies were looking for a casino site. She scheduled a meeting with tribal leaders.

"We started out saying, 'Have you thought about doing traditional natural development, like fishing and forestry?'" says Keith, executive director of the Mountains to Sounds Greenway, an organization working to make I-90 a scenic byway surrounded by forest and open spaces. "They said, 'You have to be realistic. We're a small tribe with no resources. A casino is the only way to get into the modern economy.' We had to say, 'Well, that makes sense.'" So the Greenway organization pleaded with the tribe to find a site that wouldn't obstruct the view of open space along the interstate.

Going back and forth on sites with the Greenway organization and the city of Snoqualmie, the tribe came up with a property that met everyone's needs, promising that the set-back, country club–like casino will not be visible from the interstate, despite its proximity. There will be no neon signs.

"It was a really constructive and honorable process," Keith says.

But the tribe still needed federal approval. If a tribe wants to put a casino on an existing reservation, that's a relatively easy process. If a tribe wants to establish a reservation in order to build a casino, it has to get approval from the regional office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and then from the Office of Indian Gaming Management in Washington, D.C. The Snoqualmies' application dragged on for years, and was still languishing when the controversies over a practice known as reservation shopping and the Jack Abramoff scandal (in which the high-powered D.C. lobbyist allegedly bilked millions of dollars from various tribes with existing or potential gaming interests and was ultimately convicted on charges in connection with a fraudulent loan) hit the Capitol.

While Office of Indian Gaming spokesperson Nedra Darling denies it, Mattson claims that the feds began taking a new, hard look at Indian gaming operations. The Snoqualmie weren't exactly reservation shopping the way that some other tribes have—they were looking at sites within their ancestral homeland. Nevertheless, it couldn't be denied that the tribe was pushing for a reservation near a big city. According to Mattson, the tribe told the feds, "It's not our fault that Seattle is so close."

By the time the Snoqualmies received word that their reservation was a go, Moyes had cooled on the project. According to Mattson, tribal leaders began asking Moyes pointed questions about his progress in securing financing. His answers were vague, until they finally got very specific: Moyes was calling the deal off.

Tom LeClaire, president of Moyes-owned MGU, declines to comment on the reason for the break, offering only: "At some point, the tribe and MGU will come out with a joint statement."

The annual three-day Northwest Indian Gaming Conference, which Mattson attended this past July at the Tacoma Convention & Trade Center, is as good a place as any to get a look at the wildcatter's paradise that the Snoqualmie tribe has stepped into.

On the first day, before anybody else has arrived in the exhibit room, representatives of Bally Technologies, the Las Vegas maker of gambling equipment, are setting up the company's display of glitzy machines, including its latest wide-screen version with surround-sound speakers. "We wanted to get here early," says Bally worker Shawn Hogue.

Bally has locked up a 75 percent market share for slot machines among the state's tribal casinos. Actually, they're not technically slot machines in the Vegas mode, which are forbidden in this state, but "electronic lottery" machines, a complicated distinction that has to do with winning bets being preordained or random. According to Senior Vice President of Marketing Marcus Prater, Nevada executive Bob Luciano was instrumental in developing the technology for these types of machines. Luciano is now chief technology officer of Bally. It's a common pattern: Those who got an early toehold in Indian gaming, many of them non–Native Americans, have profited enormously.

By the third day of the conference, all the vendors clamoring for tribal business are out in force. They include more gambling machine manufacturers, the maker of an electronic, dealerless poker table (put your hand down in front of your digital cards and they appear to peel back for viewing), an insurance company that sells exclusively to tribes, a furniture designer specializing in Native American patterns, the purveyors of a line of spa products utilizing indigenous plants like sweet grass and chokecherry, and a food distributor that epitomizes mainstream corporate America. Next to a table piled with banana, cheese-, and chocolate cake, Ken Dalen is glad-handing customers for Sara Lee, a conglomerate whose array of food companies supply casinos not only with desserts, but with coffee and meats as well.

"We sell to 80 percent of all casinos in the U.S.," says the gray-haired and ruddy-faced Dalen, who often breaks into a boisterous laugh when holding forth on the happy subject of Indian gaming. "Casinos are Sara Lee's largest individual account."

Dalen has something to do with that. Like Bally, he got in early, first developing a relationship with the Mille Lacs tribe in Minnesota. "When casinos came on, I was at their front doorstep," he recalls. "Everyone said, 'Kenny, you're an idiot.'" He laughs again. "Now they're crying."

Canvassing the exhibit room is Doug Boon, CEO of the Little Creek Casino, operated by the Squaxin Island tribe near the town of Shelton. Boon is just the kind of client that salespeople like Dalen are trying to attract. While a number of tribal representatives at the conference are informally dressed in ponytails and jeans, Boon, himself a Tulalip Indian, looks every bit the executive in a crisp lavender shirt, purple- and-black-striped tie, and gray jacket and pleated pants. The Squaxin Island tribe has been so successful that, like many local tribes operating casinos, it is now expanding its enterprise into a resort. A few weeks ago, Boon says, the tribe broke ground on a golf course. It is currently conducting a $54 million expansion of its hotel. Recently, too, it built a convention center about the size of Tacoma's, where Bill Cosby gave a performance this summer.

A few feet away from Boon lies another sign of the Squaxin Island tribe's success: a display featuring the products of a tobacco company run by the tribe, Skookum Creek Tobacco, which not only operates a factory on the tribe's reservation but has recently invested in a cigar manufacturing plant in the Dominican Republic.

Yet for all these signs of prosperity in the exhibit room, the mood in the conference rooms a floor or two below is one of anxiety. During a panel discussion on federal issues, Tom Rodgers, a Virginia political consultant specializing in Native American issues, holds up an issue of the Financial Times, the pink-tinged English newspaper. Splashed across it is an article about the arrest in the preceding week of British Internet gambling entrepreneur David Carruthers, whom U.S. agents nabbed on racketeering and fraud charges while he was in America on a layover between flights.

"You know where the Department of Justice is headed," Rodgers says in ominous tones. "Watch that. None of us should sleep in the next three to four months. You have so much at risk."

Rodgers concedes that he doesn't know what the implications are for Indian gaming amidst the apparent crackdown on Internet gambling, but worries it could limit options for tribes. Easier to decipher are two congressional bills currently under consideration. The very next day, Rodgers announces, is the committee markup of a bill by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-California. The bill would stop the controversial practice of "reservation shopping" that has some tribes canvassing the country for a suitable, preferably urban spot to establish their reservation/casino. A number of communities have rebelled against seeing casinos built at such close proximity. Right now, for instance, casino opponents near Vancouver, Wash., are fighting an attempt by the landless Cowlitz tribe to build a casino-centered reservation in their midst.

Most of the speakers here, though, decry the Pombo bill as restrictive and unnecessary. This same attitude prevails when it comes to a similar bill put forth by Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, a longtime ally of Native American interests. McCain has become convinced of the need for tighter regulation on what is nationally a $22.6 billion industry that has proliferated beyond expectation.

"We haven't had a debate like this for a decade," Rodgers notes.

It should come as no surprise that the Snoqualmie tribe is determined to go forward with its casino no matter what. As with all tribes that are interested in gaming—and most are—there is the feeling that everything is riding on this one opportunity.

That isn't to say there hasn't been a fair amount of dissent inside Native American communities. "None of the elders are in favor of gambling," says 88-year-old Vi Hilbert, an Upper Skagit tribe member and one of the most respected Native American elders in the region.

Having taught Native American studies at the University of Washington and the Evergreen State College, Hilbert has spent much of her life preserving the Lushootseed language and culture that is common to Northwest tribes. While she recognizes that there are traditional Native American forms of gambling— a point made often by defenders of tribal casinos—she feels those traditions vary greatly from the big casinos run by "outsiders."

Casinos, Hilbert says, "are a shortcut" to earning an honorable living. "They take away from the strength of the first people to honor the gifts that the Creator gave us to use."

Those kinds of sentiments have been muted, however, by economic necessity. It says a lot about the tenor of dialogue that someone like Ramona Bennett speaks strongly in favor of casinos. In 1970, Bennett was an activist who, along with Leonard Peltier and Jane Fonda, participated in the three-month Native American takeover of the Fort Lawton military base in Magnolia.

"In the real world, we hunt and gather at the Safeway and at Albertsons and Fred Meyer," says Bennett, a Puyallup tribe member who runs an organization dealing with foster care and adoption. "I don't see anything dignified about standing in the welfare line."

Ultimately, when the Snoqualmie tribe ran the numbers, it came to the same conclusion. What makes the financial potential of a casino seem all the more compelling is the enormous need of the tribe.

At the Snoqualmie tribe's wood shingled social service center in Carnation, director Marie Ramirez sits at her desk and lays out some of the issues her staff of counselors, case workers, and youth coordinators regularly deal with.

"Most Native students do not go beyond ninth grade," she says. She can think of only a half-dozen students who have graduated from high school since she arrived at the tribe in 2001. Unemployment is, therefore, unsurprisingly high—around 49 percent. Diabetes and poor nutrition are rampant, as they tend to be among Native Americans. So is drug and alcohol abuse.

"I cannot think of a single family that does not have some involvement with alcohol use and addiction," Ramirez says.

The government grants that accompany federal recognition have allowed the tribe to begin tackling these problems. To wit, the tribe now has two health clinics and a drug and alcohol treatment program. It also runs a food bank and is attempting to educate tribe members about nutrition and exercise.

Perhaps most uplifting of all, the tribe has started a cultural program centered on canoe building and sailing, bent on getting youth involved in activities more constructive than drinking and drugs. In an outdoor workshop on Joseph Mullen's property, the tribe has been forging its own tools and building its first seaworthy canoe. Named Grandmother, the vessel is now complete, beautifully adorned with elegant lines and burnished red cedar. At the helm of the project is tribal youth coordinator John Mullen, yet another Mullen brother. While he's drawing kids in with the excitement of canoe building, John is also urging them to make homemade drums with deer skin and learn Salish songs.

John Mullen professes no interest in the casino, yet there exists an undeniable air of boom times to come.

"Am I expecting millions? No," says Ramirez, the social services director, speaking about the share of casino proceeds that might land in her department. "But I expect we will be generously given a proportion." She then notes with excitement that there is talk of establishing a job-training program at the casino, one which would include a GED component.

Tribal Chair Bill Sweet says that while he may not be able to employ every willing tribe member, "I do have ambitions of that." And Ray Mullen calls the casino "an economic engine to get everything else off the ground."

Will it work? The evidence after almost two decades of Indian gaming is of two minds. At the Tacoma gaming conference, Jonathan Taylor, a Massachusetts economic consultant, releases a study he did for the Washington Indian Gaming Association which found that, among the 20 tribes who cooperated with the study, they now supply, on average, almost two-thirds of their own budgets. Not that long ago, tribal governments were almost completely dependent on federal and local grants to fill their coffers.

"What's remarkable to me as a longtime researcher in Indian country is that tribes in Washington are really standing on their own two feet to a degree never possible before," Taylor says.

But then, there are the income figures Taylor cites. In spite of all the billions of dollars that casinos have brought to reservations, the income level of Native Americans, as of the 2000 Census, remains dismal. Statewide, median per capita Native American income is approximately $15,446 a year, whereas the average for all Washingtonians is approximately $26,000. Ironically, on local reservations where casinos are located, the average individual's annual income stands at just under $11,000.

Some tribes have sought to directly jump-start their members' incomes by providing large per-capita payments from casino revenue. But that route is rife with snarls: Federal regulations set limits based on the amount of revenue earned. The Puyallup tribe is currently locked in a battle with the National Indian Gaming Commission, a federal regulatory body, over whether the tribe's $2,000- a-month per-capita payments are higher than allowed.

The Snoqualmie tribe found out about other problems with per-capita payments after meeting with leaders of the Fort McDowell Yavapi Nation in Arizona. A wildly successful pioneer of Indian gaming, the Fort McDowell tribe pays its members somewhere "under $50,000 a year," according to tribe President Raphael Bear. A fair share of that, at least in the early years, went for alcohol and drugs. In response, the tribe instituted its own version of a three-strikes-you're-out policy. The first time a tribe member commits a crime like drunken driving, he or she is fined 25 percent of the per-capita payment. The second time, 50 percent. The third time, 100 percent. The tribe fines parents similarly if their kids are caught skipping school. The high-school graduation rate has risen from 30 percent or 40 percent to 80 percent, according to Bear.

Taking account of such examples, the Snoqualmie tribe is pondering whether it should distribute per-capita payments and how it might handle destructive spending. Ray Mullen envisions some kind of intervention, though he doesn't yet know what form it will take. But with Moyes' decision to leave the tribe high and dry, that's putting the cart before the horse. Bond financing is still an uncertain gambit, and tribe members are concentrating on raising money to simply break ground.

As for whether eager investors are still calling the tribe to get a slice of the could-be action, Mullen raises his eyebrows and smiles coyly. "Every day," he says. "Every day."

nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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