Real lightning or not, the crackle of change was in the air. For the first time in a couple of decades, there was a new chairman on the tribal council.
He's a young guy, just 32, named Chief Allan.
But the abrupt change in tribal leadership -- which came like the proverbial bolt out of the blue -- is just the tip of a longer, lingering, slow-motion lightning strike. Over the last decade, it has stretched and stretched like a slinky only to -- snap! -- suddenly become visible.
There is indeed something new on the rez, and it's not a new leader. It's something that's been changing slowly for some time, has little to do with who's in charge, and it's happening all across Indian Country.
It's the emergence of an Indian middle class.
"I don't have numbers or census data -- it's more anecdotal evidence -- but I witness it myself, and I am probably an example of it," says J.D. Colbert, an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation and vice president of a tribally owned bank in Oklahoma City.
"What I see when I'm in Indian Country is more professional people and more good jobs," Colbert adds.
"There is, at some level, a changing of the guard," agrees Native American attorney Gabe Galanda of Seattle. "And I think in many ways it is exactly what tribes, and senior tribal members, have wanted all along."
Jobs -- good jobs -- are available on the rez in ways they weren't before. There are good houses, reliable cars, Thursday drum circles and even espresso machines.
There's a new generation of tribal members who realize they can live in the big cities and not be curiosities. And they realize they are the first generation that can also go home and get a job -- a well-paying, satisfying job with health benefits -- on the rez.
Betting on Betterment
Casino money is the engine that drives a lot of this change, and casino money has also created a finger-pointing divide of sorts between haves and have-nots in Indian Country.
The Coeur d'Alenes, through gumption and vision and perhaps some luck, are among the haves.
Prosperity in Indian Country, Galanda notes, is all about location, location, location. East Coast tribes near big cities, West Coast tribes along the interstates -- these were the tribes making money.
The Coeur d'Alenes plunged ahead and built a bingo hall near Worley - more than an hour of two-lane from anything resembling a population center - in the 1980s even when any number of advisors said such a venture by a little tribe in the middle of nowhere was simply insane.
But from Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, the customers came. The bingo hall has grown into a sprawling casino with hotel and restaurant and musical acts and a world-class golf course. Change has swept across the rez.
"I'm a part of that wave," says Chief Allan, new chairman of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe.
Allan grew up in Worley, was encouraged by longtime tribal chairman Ernie Stensgar to attend college and to later work for the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C.
"Chief is a hard worker and I'm very proud of him," Stensgar says.
"When I got out of college, there was no job for me," Allan says. "Ernie and Dave [Matheson] opened that door for new vision, for change. With gaming, they put us on the map. People walking down the road from the store with cases of beer under their arms -- you don't see that any more. People got jobs now. People want to take care of their kids."
There's nothing new about Indians with good jobs, but those jobs were hardly found on the rez to any great degree.
Valerie Fast Horse, information technology director for the Coeur d'Alenes, remembers her dad, a construction worker, often had to leave the rez for weeks at a time to find jobs.
"I call it following the buffalo," she says.
Others scraped together a seasonal living as wildland firefighters or tree planters or working in Alaska fish canneries.
No benefits, no retirement, no future.
"A lot of folks used to have to go the big Indian urban centers like Seattle or Minneapolis or Oklahoma City" for their jobs, Colbert says. "They would get used to the level of goods and services in the city. When they'd go back to Indian Country, all that wasn't there. So they'd agitate `We want this, or that, or the other.'
"Tribal government or some entrepreneur would recognize that and provide some good or service, and now there is much more of a sense of a middle class than there was 20 years ago -- or even 10," Colbert adds.
The Longest Pin Drop
On a Saturday in early May, members of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe gathered at the Rose Creek Longhouse for an annual ritual of swearing in newly elected members of the tribal council. It looked like nothing had changed at all, said one of the people in attendance. The Coeur d'Alenes are not a big tribe, so the same faces and same family names surface again and again on the tribal council.
The seven council members sat in a straight line facing the audience, with Stensgar in the center. Stensgar, 60, had devoted nearly half his life to serving on the council. He has been chairman for as long as many tribal members have been alive, and in the spring election, he was once again the leading vote-getter by a substantial margin.
The first order of business that first Saturday in May was choosing a leader from among the council members. Stensgar was quickly nominated and seconded.
There was a small moment of silence. Just as he was about to call for the vote, councilwoman Norma Peone said: "I nominate Chief Allan."
Peone appeared to take everyone by surprise.
"This was unexpected," one tribal department head in attendance recalls. "Now they realized they had to have a secret vote and there was no paper."
After some scrambling, staffers rounded up a stack of Post-it notes and passed them out to council members, who scribbled their choice, folded up the yellow squares and passed them back.
"It was like something on TV," the department head says. "They read the votes and it went: Ernie Stensgar. Ernie Stensgar. Chief Allan. Chief Allan. Ernie Stensgar. Chief Allan.
"They opened the last one, and it was for Chief Allan. You could hear a pin drop. All seven people on the council sat there looking straight ahead -- no smiles, no frowns, no looking around.
"Finally Ernie stood up and said `Well Chief, I guess we're changing chairs here,'" the department head says. "I went outside [with a colleague] and we looked at each other and said `What just happened in there?'"
Riding the New Wave
What happened was the sort of change that is rolling across Indian Country. It has more to do with the coming-of-age of the next generation than coups or secret cabals.
The Nez Perce Tribe has a new chairwoman, who is the same age as Chief Allan.
"The same thing is happening with the Suquamish Tribe," the Seattle attorney Galanda says. "Benny Armstrong -- a clean-and-sober, tried-and-true tribal leader for two decades, has been replaced by a younger man of a succeeding generation."
Stensgar and Allan were equally surprised by the sudden change in the longhouse, and each worked hard for the next several weeks to quash rumors and keep the focus on work and not scandal.
"We both knew change was going to take place, but to our surprise, it came sooner rather than later," says Allan, who counts Stensgar as a respected longtime mentor. "Me and Ernie go way back. Ernie's been like a second dad to me."
The small rez was abuzz with gossip and speculation for a few weeks, everybody guessing at a secret coup.
This makes Allan laugh.
"Everybody said it was all planned out. Well, that would be a good trick for the council to plan something like that and keep it secret," he says. "The council can't keep anything secret."
There was no dark plotting -- in fact, quite the opposite, says Norma Peone. "I am a born-again Christian, and I was moved by my spirit to do this. Chief is a sharp young man. I don't know if he will take us to the next level or just shake things up, but he has all the education and experience the tribe could afford him."
Paving the Way
Peone has served 19 years on the council and has long been a Stensgar supporter, she says. But she felt it was time for change -- for the next chapter in the tribe's journey toward self-sufficiency.
When she moved back home to the Coeur d'Alene Reservation in 1976, "I was lucky there was a job for me," Peone recalls. "I grew up on the Spokane Reservation, where my grandmother's people are from. My family had nine children, and we didn't just survive day to day -- it was meal to meal. There was a lot of potatoes and gravy and wild meat. I came from a family of hunters, so we were better off than some."
Ernie Stensgar, likewise, had a childhood that was -- at the same time -- dirt poor but rich in culture and tradition. In 1945, just as the United States was becoming a world superpower and had created and unleashed atomic weapons, Stensgar was delivered by his aunt in a cabin near Desmet, Idaho. The aunt was the midwife because there was no hospital nearby and no car to get there in any event.
"We never hurt for food. I grew up living the old way," Stensgar says. "We had wild game. The women in the family dug roots and berries. Everybody I knew spoke Indian."
His family, however, made sure they spoke only English to Stensgar, he adds. He didn't fully realize the purpose -- or the payoff -- until years later when he was sent to an Indian boarding school in Chilocco, Okla., near the Kansas border. Kids from tribes all over the country were sent there, he says, and some arrived unable to speak English.
For the others, it was like having a 17-year head start on the way to graduation, Stensgar says. And ever since, the power of education has not been lost on him.
During his childhood, the government was full-bore into a program to "terminate" Indian tribes and forcibly mainstream all Native Americans into the larger white culture. Stensgar remembers, as a child of 8 or 9, being at heated tribal meetings where leaders like Joe Garry spoke forcefully about the importance of tribal homelands and urged everyone never to sell out.
"Termination was fought here in the Northwest, and thank God, we had tribal leaders who went out and fought hard," Stensgar says.
After Termination, he remembers tribal leaders such as Ozzie George and Happy Lasart fighting to create jobs on the rez. They wrested land back into tribal control and created a farm, they made deals with timber companies to hire tribal members at area plywood mills. The work, though welcome, was largely seasonal.
But for Stensgar and others in his generation, these were all lessons to fight for a homeland, to fight for opportunity no matter what the odds. And never to sell out.
The fruits of those labors are being seen today.
"We are moving so fast forward as a tribe and as a people, we need to be on our toes and pay attention to what we need to do spiritually and culturally," Peone says.
Although her generation and Stensgar's grew up in such a way that it was possible to be rich in culture but poor in money, that wasn't the case for those who followed.
With few or no jobs on the rez, it's a common tale in Indian Country to hear of mothers who moved away with their kids to a city or a white town where they could find work and feed and clothe their children.
The Seattle attorney, Galanda, is one of those.
"I grew up off the rez in Port Angeles," the 29-year-old says. "I didn't feel different in terms of skin color. I felt different in terms of socio-economic status. I was born and raised in welfare. I was raised by a mom who had drug and alcohol addictions. When you are in that situation, your only question is survival. You don't question, `Who am I?' and `What is my tribal affiliation?' and `What does my ancestry mean?'"
Shonta (shon-TAY) Chaloux is 30. He is a member of the San Pasqual Kumeyaay tribe near San Diego. Once an ocean-going people, the various bands of the Kumeyaay were pushed inland to rocky reservations around San Diego County.
The rez had no school, dirt roads, trucked-in water, didn't have electricity until 1991 -- and his childhood home didn't get a phone line until last year, Chaloux says.
"In the words of my great-grandmother, I had a responsibility to walk in two worlds -- the world of my own traditional ways, and the white man's world," Chaloux said. "And I was not to think of this as a burden, and I was not to abandon either one. We were given the gift of life from the Creator -- we are survivors. But we also have the responsibility to do what is considered the right thing in the white world -- such as going to college -- and to bring that back to our people."
Chaloux spent years creating youth programs for Southern California tribes, trying to reconnect Kumeyaay kids with their cultural past. About 18 months ago, he moved to the private sector, taking a job with Native Threads, an Indian-owned clothing company that plows some of its profits back to its people in terms of supporting emerging artists or funding intertribal programs.
Fast Horse, the information technology director for the Coeur d'Alenes, joined the military to get away. It was while she was on active duty as an information manager during the first Gulf War "that the light bulb came on. We rolled out all the communications infrastructure for the whole theater, and it was awesome. That was where I first understood the broader application of communications technology and the relevance of having information in a timely manner," she says.
Now Fast Horse is preparing for the grand opening of the tribe's new IT center, where there will be computers and training available for all residents on the rez -- tribal members or not. The tribe has also received a grant to turn the rez into a wi-fi zone so anybody with a computer will have high-speed wireless Internet access.
Fast Horse finds herself in the amusing position of trying to prove that technology is faster than gossip on an Indian rez -- something old-timers find hard to believe.
"People here were set in their ways of doing things, but it eventually catches on," Fast Horse says. "So many people told me they would never use e-mail because they didn't trust it ... now if the server goes down, everybody is screaming at me."
"The white buffalo of gaming"
Last month, Chief Allan offered tours of the new IT building and the new housing units for tribal elders. He is proud of both, having helped the tribe find a way to construct both projects itself - saving money, gaining skills.
In this, he says, he is only following the example of Dave Matheson, a former tribal chairman who was instrumental in helping Stensgar and other tribal leaders get the casino off the ground.
"The big thing was it gave people a sense of self-worth," Allan says. "Dave Matheson believed in our people and he made them floor managers and everything -- he kept it in-house. He took a chance and the people answered the call. I'm just following in those footsteps."
Allan, like other tribal leaders around the nation, is also hoping to move the tribe beyond the gaming business.
"You look at all the successful tribes around Indian Country and they are all moving beyond gaming," Allan says. "The Tulalip have a Wal-Mart and a Prime Outlets mall. The Choctaw are into everything as well, and we don't need to limit ourselves to the rez. The Oneida have built a hotel on the Mall in D.C."
Colbert, the Chickasaw banker, says "Most tribes acknowledge the white buffalo of gaming will not last forever, and prudent tribes are taking a portion of their earnings and reinvesting in different endeavors."
His own mission is to get more tribes to open banks, Colbert says, citing a need for Indians to provide financial services for each other. Even today, as 70 percent of Americans are home owners, only 33 percent of Indians own their own homes. His bank is committed to making thousands of mortgage loans throughout Indian Country, Colbert says.
Allan says he also intends to follow the lead of the long line of tribal leaders concerned about protecting and managing the environment. The Coeur d'Alenes fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to win ownership of the southern third of Lake Coeur d'Alene, disgusted that no other governments seemed concerned about protecting it from mining-related pollution.
"Our goal is the self-sufficiency of the tribe," Stensgar says. "We want a healthy tribe with employment and all the fruits that come with that labor. We want a sustainable homeland, which means using our natural resources wisely. But I think our No. 1 priority still is education."
"We are investing more and more in education. This year, we were assisting 40 to 50 students with [college tuition]," Peone says. "When I started here nine years ago, it was only 12."
Culture Clashes and Cash Machines
"God has blessed us here beyond expectation," Peone adds, citing the rapidly improving tribal economy. "We've struggled as a people. And all the changes we've encountered have been because we have taken action."
Action is the keyword for Galanda, an enrolled member of Northern California's Round Valley Indian Confederation. The Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975 is what tribes across the country have seized upon to move away from generations of poverty and dependence.
"Tribal self-determination has moved us to an era where events in Indian Country must be done by Indians," Galanda says. "In the face of extinction, the paradigm shifted not just to survival, but to empowerment to no longer let people in D.C. tell us what to do."
The Self-Determination Act reversed decades of official U.S. government policy to eradicate, subjugate or assimilate Native peoples. In the last 30 years, self-determination "has come to fruition in the form of new tribal leadership," Galanda says: "Indian lawyers, Indian doctors, Indian business owners ... people who understand the way of the corporate boardroom and the way of Indian Country and who can jump between both realms."
Fast Horse, one of those people in both realms, concedes the new abundance of jobs on the rez but notes many of them are service industry jobs at the casino or hotel. Her generation's task, she says, is to move opportunity to another level, where kids can go to college not for a trade, but to pursue knowledge just to see where it leads them. It will be part of an evolving story, she suspects.
"I am very interested in this whole thing -- the human story and the tribal story," Fast Horse says. "Now people are fully employed. We have regular paychecks and medical benefits and dental benefits. We have a wellness center -- the quality of life has improved so much in just a decade.
"We work and go home and buy TVs and computers. But at some point, we still need to communicate with each other as Indians," Fast Horse adds.
Colbert agrees, citing worries about culture disappearing under creature comforts. But a recent meeting of the Native American Chamber of Commerce in Oklahoma City revealed otherwise, he says.
"We were having a board meeting when one of the officers - well-educated, Harvard MBA, strong financial type - mentioned he had just been inducted into the Kiowa gourd dance society," Colbert says. "We got to talking ... eight of us ... college degrees, some business success, new cars, comfortable walking down Main Street, USA ... and everybody was very active in their culture, whether it was powwows or the more traditional kinds of tribal ceremonies not open to the public. This was a big part of who we are."
It's a place where the modern world and the middle class can take a breather, while people like Fast Horse and her family hit the summer powwow circuit, and where she can dance a few of the old, slow dances with her people.