Taking Government-to-Government Relationships to the Bank

After years of fighting the development of a Cowlitz governmental gaming facility tooth and nail – appealing BIA decisions, questioning the honesty of tribal officials, and even arguing that tribal members do not need jobs as much as non-Indians – local governments in Southwest Washington have finally agreed to negotiate with the Cowlitz Indian Tribe in a government-to-government fashion regarding their proposed plans for a casino. Because now the local governments want something. As reported by the Columbian:

[T]he Cowlitz Indian Tribe . . . is in talks to help La Center pay a portion of the tab for the sewer lines to the junction, in exchange for aid moving waste from its 152 acres of land west of I-5, city and tribe officials said. The Cowlitz tribe aims to build a casino on its land.

Six months after the La Center City Council voted to open talks with the tribe, leaders of both bodies said Tuesday that preliminary negotiations are going well and they hope they can forge a mutually beneficial relationship. That includes current talks about sewers, which have been ongoing the past month, and soon-to-come discussions on a new interchange off I-5 that would allow motorists easier access to the tribe’s land.

Such talks are significant considering the council and tribe did not officially speak about the proposed casino for four years after the council banned all dialogue with the tribe in 2007.

“I am quite surprised,” La Center Mayor Jim Irish said of negotiations, “considering we didn’t want to work with them in the past.”

This is nothing new. Slowly, local governments are coming to realize that working with tribal governments to find amicable solutions to mutual problems is much more beneficial than the zero-sum games of yesteryear.

In fact, even cash contributions are not off the table. Earlier this year, in New york, the Seneca Nation contributed over $1 million to a fund to help local government infrastructure; in California, the Yolo Indian Gaming Community Benefit Committee awarded over $200,000 in grants to local agencies affected by tribal gaming; in Michigan, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe distributed over $2.3 million to nearby schools and local governments; and here in Washington State, as reported by NPR,

Native American tribes . . . are bailing out financially troubled local governments. Most native tribes are still among the poorest communities in the U.S. But in Washington, casino revenue has allowed tribes to make big donations to school districts and even to fund local government positions.

Unlike state and local governments who have no qualms invading the sovereignty of other nations when their coffers run dry, tribal governments are on their own, looking inward for solutions – and finding them. Diversifying business; actively asserting tribal sovereignty; reinvesting in local economies; protecting areas of cultural significance; investing in clean energy; generally reevaluating the playing field – this is what’s going on in Indian country today. As state and local governments flail around aimlessly, wreaking havoc in Indian country and beyond, tribes are showing integrity. And as good neighbors, tribes are willing to lend a helping hand. Indeed, according to Melvin Sheldon, Chairman of the Tulalip Tribes, many tribes in Washington State are now “able to help out other communities. [F]or the tribes that can give . . . it’s a way to say hey, we've made it, and this is who we are.”

Local governments take notice: working with tribal governments is an idea that you can take to the bank.

Ryan Dreveskracht is an Associate at Galanda Broadman PLLC, of Seattle, an American Indian majority-owned law firm. His practice focuses on representing businesses and tribal governments in public affairs, energy, gaming, taxation, and general economic development. He can be reached at 206.909.3842 or ryan@galandabroadman.com.