Recently, my time serving the Tulalip Tribal Council has come to a close. Change is inevitable and change is good, and the Tulalip Tribes will embrace new leadership. At the same time, so many important things happened during my 15 years of time on the board that I want to take a moment to reflect and recognize the tribes’ progress.
Before I was elected to tribal council I was a commercial fisherman catching salmon and herring in the waters of Alaska from Southeast to Bristol Bay, and Washington’s waters covered by the Point Elliot Treaty.
During my times home, I have distinct memories of going to the tribal garbage dump and sitting with one of Tulalip’s great leaders, George Williams. In his old Chevy truck, I would listen to his stories of serving in World War II, being on the Board of Directors and ultimately serving as Chairman, while he bit into an onion like it was an apple. Little did I know these Saturday conversations would germinate a desire to serve our community because I was very happy fishing.
In 1999 I was elected to the Tulalip Board of Directors, the highest of honors. At the time, I had no idea of the exciting journey that would consume every day of the next fifteen years. First and foremost I was gifted to serve with great council members. We were not afraid to embrace new ideas or avenues to strengthen our tribal sovereignty. Staff was encouraged to think outside the box and they did.
One of the most important things that we did as a board for our people’s future was to lay a foundation of strong economic revenue and growth.
A cornerstone of that effort was establishing Quil Ceda Village, the second federally recognized city in America, as a destination retail center in the county. Before then, this large tract of land next to Interstate 5 was just dirt, trees and a vision. Our elders had the foresight to set this land aside for economic development and think big. I still remember our trip to Bentonville, Arkansas to meet with Wal-Mart and urge them to do business with an Indian Tribe. This prominent national retailer became our first anchor tenant.
Tulalip Tribes continued building on that success, with outstanding additions like the Seattle Premium Outlets, a large outlet shopping mall, and Cabella’s. Today Quil Ceda Village is a thriving and growing municipality.
Of course, the centerpiece at the heart of that development is the Tulalip Resort Casino, a state of the art and exciting alternative to Las Vegas. Like many tribes, gaming offered considerable opportunities for Tribal membership, employment and the ability to support and develop many tribal government programs.
When we looked to add a hotel to the casino, we had many discussions about what kind and whether to design a two star, or four star property. I remember endless hours of discussion, planning, and of course financing before we began construction. Tribal members and businesses benefitted during construction and then tribal members found good livable jobs working in the casino. A win-win for all.
But it was not without great risk. When we opened the hotel, the national economy had entered the recession and it appeared that we may have miscalculated by building a 4-star hotel with a premium spa. Instead, staycations became popular and it was the perfect addition to our gaming operations. If you have stayed at our property you know what I mean and if not I invite you to give us a look!
Today Tulalip Resort Casino operations employs 2,500 people, with another 2,000 in the direct employment of tribal government and at Quil Ceda Village. We have become an undeniable economic engine for Snohomish County.
Hand in hand with that economic growth, Tulalip Tribes created important services and government programs for its people. We developed a court system and police department comparable to any city or county. I am proud that Tulalip’s court system was recently chosen to pilot a program under the Violence Against Women Act to prosecute non-tribal domestic violence offenders.
We created programs for our young people to help them pursue a college degree or vocational/technical school by offsetting the costs to make their educational journey obtainable. Today Tulalip has more college graduates than ever before in our history, a source of deep pride. Our future leadership will come from their ranks.
We honored our elders with programs that have given them a better quality of life, including elder homes and duplexes, and health programs for seniors. We are happy to host a special lunch for more than 800 natives to gather, renewing friendships and remembering the good times.
We have also worked hard to develop relationships with local and regional governments and agencies. It’s always been my approach to build bridges, so we conducted monthly meetings with our neighboring cities and county to share ideas, common goals and tribal priorities, as well as the meaning of our tribal sovereignty.
We have developed strong relationships with our Washington delegation to make sure our voices are heard at the federal level. Working closely with fellow tribes in important leadership groups like NCAI, NIGA, and ATNI, I have marveled at the dedication they showed to move tribal issues forward. My years as ATNI 3rd Vice President allowed me to advocate for regional progress while representing close to 50 tribes from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, western Montana, and northern California.
As I look forward, I support our Board as they work to meet the challenges of a growing membership, the needs of the young and elders, and plan for a better tomorrow.
I have been honored to serve our people and I am happy to broaden my focus across Indian Country. I am joining Strategies 360, a strategic communications and public affairs firm. Based in Seattle, with offices in 10 Western states and Washington D.C., Strategies 360 is a full-service consulting firm with expertise in public policy, research, public relations, marketing, advertising and grassroots organizing and coalition building. As the senior vice president for Native American affairs, I will be seeking solutions to the challenges tribes face. I look forward to continue connecting with many of you and helping advance the goals and priorities of tribal nations.
And so, I raise my hands to all of you, and say in Lushootseed, t’igwicid. Thank you.
Mel Sheldon is the former chairman of the Tulalip Tribes of Washington. He served on the tribal council since 1999.