National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.


 Role-reversal: Indian tribes help other governments

By Charles Taylor


The Queen of Hearts turned out to be a lucky card for the Snohomish County, Wash. Sheriff’s Office when it recently led to an arrest in a 1979 homicide case. Someone recognized a picture of Susan Schwarz, the victim, on a “cold case” playing card — decks of which are distributed to jails and prisons in the state — and tipped off police to a suspect.

But rather than thanking luck, Det. Jim Scharf is expressing gratitude to the people who — twice — purchased 5,000 decks of the cards for his office: The Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians. Unable to afford the $6,850 cards, the Sheriff’s Office asked the Stillaguamish for help four years ago, and again last year.

“We’re very grateful to them that they were willing to team up with us on this project, and it’s paid off enormously,” Scharf said. “We wouldn’t have done this if we couldn’t have gotten funding from an outside source.”


Courtesy of Stillaguamish Tribal Gaming Administration

The Angel of the Winds  Casino, run by the Stillaguamish Tribe, has helped fuel tribal philanthropy benefiting Snohomish County, Wash.

Shawn Yanity, chairman of the Stillaguamish Tribal Council, said, “What we see there as a value is bringing closure to somebody’s life. And as a government, helping out another government make a difference, solve one of these cases.”

After hundreds of years on the receiving end of government help, some Native American tribes across the country are flexing their economic muscles as donors of government largesse, not recipients.

Joseph Kalt co-directs the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. He said many tribes that are flourishing economically can credit gaming revenues from casinos, and most are located near major metropolitan areas — Seattle, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Los Angeles, San Diego and Minneapolis, among others.

And he thinks their philanthropic motives are pure.

“It’s not a cynical thing on the part of the tribe of ‘let’s just get some good public relations out of this;’ rather, I think tribes are quite sincere in wanting to be good neighbors,” he said.

In Snohomish County, the Sheriff’s Office was not alone in benefiting from the Stillaguamish. County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe went to the tribe last year, “hat in hand,” seeking funding to hire a District Court prosecutor. He asked the tribe for $86,000 to keep from having to eliminate another position — after downsizing from 12 to eight prosecutors since 2009 because of budget cuts.

“They’re a big part of our local community here in Snohomish County,” Roe said of the Stillaguamish, a tribe with just 281 registered members but which employs more than twice that number, about 600 people. “They want to help. And knowing that, I just went begging.” He’ll ask again next year, if conditions don’t improve. The Tulalip Tribe also has assisted his office, he said.

As with the cold case cards, the Stillaguamish — which operate the Angel of the Winds Casino in Arlington, Wash., in the county — were more than happy to help. Arlington is about an hour north of Seattle.

 “That’s what we promised to do almost 10 years ago when we started to grow economically, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do,” Yanity said.

Not all tribes have been so fortunate. On the whole, Native Americans remain the poorest minority group in the nation. The poverty rate among Indian people is 25.9 percent, compared to the national rate of 11.3 percent, according to Tribal Philanthropy in Arizona, a 2010 report.

For those whose economies are strong, Kalt said tribes’ helping state and local governments is “a very common process,” which occurs formally and informally in three primary ways.

First, the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) governs the type of gaming tribes can enter into, and the relationship between gaming tribes and their states, he said. Under IGRA, gaming tribes are required to enter into compacts that determine what payments the tribe will make to the state in lieu of taxes. Often, the tribes negotiate with their states, but payments go to towns, cities and counties.

Secondly, smaller tribes may also benefit neighboring local governments through direct payments for services such as “rent a sheriff,” Kalt said. A tribe with a small police department might enter into a service agreement for the county to provide law enforcement to the tribe. The same is true of other municipal services a tribe might require, such as fire protection, road maintenance and waste disposal.

On the other hand, sometimes these arrangements run in the other direction, he added, and the tribe is the one with the solid waste disposal facility, selling services back to a county or city. Such is the case in Menominee County, Wis., whose boundaries are the same as the Menominee Nation’s, and the county’s 2010 population was 87.5 percent Native American. The tribe handles solid waste and recycling pickup for the county.

Kalt said the Stillaguamishes’ charity falls into a third category: “voluntary contributions.” “It’s very common now for tribes to be making contributions to the United Way, to other local charitable organizations, and so forth,” he said.

In Washington state, tribes like the Stillaguamish have focused much of their giving on police and public safety agencies, according to Yanity. He said his tribe has purchased thermal imaging cameras, a hovercraft, a rescue boat and a new Jaws of Life for police or fire departments.

For the Stillaguamish, Yanity said their desire to help begs the ongoing question: “How do we help out; how do we become a part of the solution instead of part of the problem? In some people’s eyes, unfortunately, that’s the way they see it: Tribe builds a casino, we’re building a problem,” he said.

Kalt sees a poignant irony in this reversal of roles. “It’s a pride of saying, ‘We’re still here,’ and in fact in this period in which tribes have been growing economically — not just the gaming tribes but non-gaming tribes as well — they finally have the resources that allow them to step out into the community in a way that isn’t in the role as second-class citizen, which has been forced on tribes for so long in prior history.”

Yet even with the relative prosperity of some tribes, Yanity said much work remains to be done before Indian nations to reach their full potential.

“We’re still not up to par; we’re still not up to where we should be as nations that ceded … land for certain promises,” he said. “But we’re doing the best we can, and we still know part of that is getting along with our local communities… It’s better to get along than it is to build fences.”

Tribes Bolster economies of Wisconsin counties
In Wisconsin, the positive effects from Indian gaming “extend far beyond reservation or trust land borders,” according to the February 2011 report, Tribes of Wisconsin, by the Wisconsin Department of Administration, Division of Intergovernmental Affairs.

There are 11 federally recognized tribes in the state, all of which have entered into compacts with the state to operate 23 casinos among them.

Nine tribes were the largest employers in 10 counties in the first quarter of 2010. According to the report, they are:

  • Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, Ashland County
  • Forest County Potawatomi Community, Forest County
  • Ho-Chunk Nation, Sauk and Jackson counties
  • Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Sawyer County
  • Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Vilas County
  • Menominee Nation, Menominee County
  • Mohican Nation, Stockbridge-Munsee Band, Shawano County
  • Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Bayfield County
  • St. Croix Band of Chippewa Indians, Burnett County
  • Tribes are also significant employers in Brown and Barron counties.

The counties’ non-Native American populations have also benefited from jobs in the gaming industry, often in rural and economically depressed areas. “Outside contracts generated from the gaming industry further fuel a positive economy. The tourism industry has also benefited substantially,” the report stated.