Curt Holmes: “Our job is to leave more behind than what we started with”

USK, Wash. – If you visit the Kalispel tribal office in eastern Washington, you could find yourself in the company of a tribal council member, a director of public and governmental affairs, a Gaming Enterprise Board chairman, a vice president of the Washington Indian Gaming Association, a delegate to the National Indian Gaming Association and a delegate to the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians.

And that’s if Curt Holmes enters the room alone.

Holmes, 29, is the Kalispel Tribe’s new public and governmental affairs director. To say he’s busy is an understatement; he did this interview over his cell phone while attending a neighborhood baseball game.

Holmes and other tribal leaders are ushering in a new era for their people.

The Kalispel people have faced uphill challenges since 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson granted them 4,600 acres of land along the Pend Oreille River for a reservation.

The Kalispels once occupied a 200-mile stretch of land along the Pend Oreille River, from Eastern Washington to Southwest Montana; the tribe’s population was once 3,000.

By 1914, the tribe’s population had dwindled to fewer than 300 people; they were relegated to hillside and floodplain that was difficult to farm and unsuitable for development. The ensuing years were marked by unemployment, inadequate housing, limited economic opportunities and prejudice.

Today, the future is looking bright for the Kalispels. The tribe acquired additional land for housing and economic development. The tribe built Northern Quest Casino to support the Camas Institute; the institute offers job training, college courses through a partnership with Gonzaga University and Dartmouth College, addiction recovery and family counseling services.

The tribe is developing Kalispel Commerce Park, which Holmes envisions as an “incubator” for new companies. “In a small community, if a business can create five to 10 jobs it makes a big impact,” he said.

The Kalispel Tribe owns KCL, a company that produces foam-lined aluminum cases for electronic instruments, cameras, rifles, pistols and custom use.

Kalispel Agricultural Enterprises has buffalo that provide meat for elders, production and sales. It also has 600 acres of hay used for grazing and production. Plans are to expand profits by building a meat cutting and wrapping operation in Kalispel Commerce Park.

Kalispel Day Care is a tribal-owned child care business that is open to tribal and non-tribal children. It is the only licensed child care facility in Pend Oreille County.

The Kalispel Tribe is developing an aquaculture project to raise and market fish and freshwater shrimp, and is developing recreational opportunities for its people and for tourists.

Today, unemployment is low. The population has grown – from 280 in 2000 to 356 in 2003. Twenty-two percent of tribal members are in college.

In an interview with Indian Country Today, Holmes talks about the future for the Kalispel Tribe.

ICT: How do you manage to stay so involved in tribal affairs?

Holmes: I’ve been on the council for six years now, since I was 23 – that was before the casino and a few of us had to do multiple things. I had some good teachers and some good upbringing. I try to do a good job, I know when to delegate and know when to get involved. We have good staff and we pull together as a good team. But it’s tough at times?When I was 23, I was pretty green. Our chairman and vice chairman had years of experience between them. I had to keep my ears and eyes open and try to help.

ICT: You’ve said the Kalispel Tribe can break down prejudice by educating neighboring communities about your heritage and traditions. How do you do that?

Holmes: There have always been stereotypes, myths and misconceptions that stem from not knowing enough about each other. We need more interaction, more functions and open them up to others, and vice versa. With interaction, people start to understand we’re not so different after all. We usually have different ideas on how to get where we’re going, but we have the same destination.

ICT: What was the cause of prejudice against the Kalispel people?

Holmes: Two small towns here were founded and thrived as logging communities. Now, they have had some of the highest unemployment rates in the country. In conditions like that, there’s less of an emphasis on education. All kinds of things happen because of that.

ICT: Describe the economic development barriers associated with the Kalispel reservation land.

Holmes: We have about 5,000 acres. A county road runs through it; on one half is a 100-year floodplain, the other half is the base of a mountain. There are no fishing, no mining, no timber resources.

The land was something that was passed down on us and it was one of the reasons we were the second tribe in the country to get land after 1988 for casino operations.

ICT: What has Northern Quest Casino meant to the Kalispel Tribe?

Holmes: With the casino, the whole intent was to support the Camas Institute. It was an idea the council came up with to deal with alcohol problems the tribe has had.

Traditionally, when someone had an alcohol problem they were taken out of the household to get treatment and then returned home, but the family hadn’t had any counseling. The Camas Institute takes a holistic approach – the whole family goes, they go through counseling together. All the resources are there.

At the Camas Institute, you can learn a trade, take college-level courses through a partnership with Gonzaga University and Dartmouth College. We are starting to look into distance learning. Camas Institute could be a model for any group of people in an isolated area.

ICT: How much revenue does Northern Quest Casino generate in a year?

Holmes: We’ve never been public about casino revenues. The casino opened on Dec. 28, 2000 and I can say that it is doing very, very well. An expansion is planned.

ICT: Washington state is considering a bill that would allow keno in bars. Your concerns?

Holmes: Mini-casino owners say they want to level the playing field. But before you level the playing field, let the tribes get on the playing field. We still have a lot of work to do.

I read that the life expectancy for American Indians is 63 – that’s lower than the retirement age. Diabetes and other health problems are biological. Indians have had only a couple of hundred years to adjust to those, the Europeans have had hundreds of years.

ICT: What issues do you face in the community?

Holmes: Education, trying to get better health care, developing more housing opportunities, investing money for the long-term ? At one time, our sights were set so low. You might be told you were going to be a welder because that type of job was the only opportunity available. Now, if a child wants to be CEO of a company or manager of the casino, he or she can set their sights on it ?

Employment is at a good ratio right now. One hundred and eighty tribal members are under the age of 18. We have to start getting really aggressive and start a land purchase program for housing.

ICT: What are the population trends of the Kalispel Tribe?

Holmes: We have 356 members. One-third lives on the reservation, one-third live in Spokane, one-third live around the country. We have had some births, but some of our population growth has come from members who had parents from this tribe and another and they wanted to relinquish from other tribes. There has been increased interest to come back to our tribe.

ICT: What opportunity do you most want to provide Kalispel children?

Holmes: Obviously, the choice has to be up to them, but our job is to make sure they have a better quality of life and more opportunities, that when we pass on we leave them financially and emotionally stable, leave more behind than what we started with. More recreational activities, more opportunities for education, more of a sense of culture, that’s my goal.

For more information about the Kalispel Tribe in Usk, Wash., visit

Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at


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Curt Holmes: "Our job is to leave more behind than what we started with"