Changing Fortunes

The Kalispel tribe hit a jackpot with off-rez gaming. So why are they worried about the Spokanes doing the same?

Changing Fortunes
Young Kwak

Nick Pierre can still taste it. Growing up as a Kalispel Indian — a tiny tribe with a tiny reservation in the impoverished northeast corner of Washington — he didn’t even have drinkable water on the rez. Out of the tap came water orange with manganese and arsenic.

“Twenty years ago, we were the joke,” Pierre says. “We were the poor, and everybody joked about us.”

In Indian Country, profits generated by enterprises like forestry, mining and — increasingly, in the last 20 years — commercial gambling are disbursed to enrolled members as “per-capita” payments. But the Kalispel had no industry and no wealth to share. People “didn’t believe you could be an Indian and not have a per-cap,” recalls Nick’s brother Ray. High school friends joked that he should check his Indian membership card.

The Kalispel are no longer the butt of jokes. The small tribe took a risk in the 1990s and seized a development opportunity on the West Plains that other area tribes had turned down. It wasn’t gaming at first, but within a few years, the opportunity became Northern Quest Resort and Casino, and the Kalispel now have a vibrant tribal economy. Their per-capita payments are the envy of other tribes.

The Pierre brothers, both members of the tribal council, are reflecting on the tribe’s past around a huge table in the stylishly rough-hewn offices of Desautel-Hege Communications, a Spokane public relations firm located in one of the city’s classic brick buildings.

The Kalispel have hired a public relations firm to help shape a challenging message: How do they, without appearing churlish, come out against a sister tribe’s plan to lift itself out of poverty the same way the Kalispel did — through off-reservation gambling on the West Plains?

The Spokane tribe has seen its natural-resource industries crater in the recession and its small and remote casinos struggle in the shadow of Northern Quest. The tribe is experiencing the kind of poverty the Kalispel knew not long ago, with 52 percent unemployment.

They’re now staking their future on a plan to build a casino and resort about four miles from Northern Quest on Highway 2.

Understandably, the Kalispel are nervous. The majority of profit from Northern Quest is plowed back into tribal infrastructure and services. In the last decade, the Kalispel have been able to offer its members no- or low-cost medical and dental services, college scholarships, pensions for tribal elders and help with housing. The tribe shares its wealth with local, non-Indian school districts and contributes to a variety of charities and goodwill events in and around Spokane.

The Kalispel worry that their financial stability — so rare in Indian Country — will be rocked if a competing casino opens next door. But they also don’t want to be seen as holding down another tribe. It’s a delicate balancing act, one that is weighted with history, native culture and a whole lot of money.

“Right now, Northern Quest is the only business we have to fund tribal government,” Nick Pierre says. “We don’t have the land, we don’t have the natural resources … the Spokane tribe has.”

The Quest of the Spokanes

Michael Spencer, vice-chairman of the Spokane tribal council, understands what Northern Quest has meant for the Kalispel. “They were a poor tribe with no jobs, with no way to fund the wellness programs for their people — whether it was the elders or the youth — and they were in desperate need of some way of securing funds to help their people,” he says. “We acknowledge that.”

The Spokane can relate.

Income from two tribal casinos on their reservation, located 44 miles north of Spokane, has shriveled from about $25 million a year down to less than $5 million. The tribe has had to cut dozens of jobs at the two casinos, shuffled dozens more full-time jobs to part-time or seasonal with no benefits. More jobs were lost as wellness and assistance programs were shuttered. Remaining general fund employees had five weeks off with no pay in both 2009 and 2010, and there have been no cost-ofliving raises for three years.

Changing Fortunes
Young Kwak
Last year, the Spokane tribe gave out per-capita payments of only $300.

Last year, the tribe could offer only one per-cap of $300 at Christmas. By comparison, Spencer has heard the Kalispel are getting per-caps of $2,000 to $3,000 per quarter. The Inlander has been told similar figures from several sources, though the Kalispel tribe won’t officially release the information.

At 62, Spencer is trim and wears his long hair in a ponytail. He sits drinking strong coffee in his small house at West End, which is a mix of HUD houses and trailers that cluster around a community center on the western edge of the Spokane reservation.

Spencer tries to hold onto traditions: He drums and sings and hosts a weekly sweat lodge.

Tribal traditions include generosity, Spencer says. “That’s part of the reason our tribal elders came to the council [in the mid-1990s] and said, ‘The Kalispel are desperate. They’re in need. Don’t oppose their application for gaming at Airway Heights.’ So the tribal leaders respected that and backed off,” Spencer says.

To be fair, the Spokane tribe did, at first, submit a formal objection to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, arguing that a Kalispel casino on the West Plains would kill their smaller, more remote casinos at Two Rivers and Chewelah. They also passed on the West Plains site before the Kalispel developed it.

The tribe eventually sent a letter to the Department of the Interior dropping their opposition but also warning that, if their economy were to suffer because of Northern Quest, the Spokane might be compelled to move casino operations to the West Plains, too.

Fifteen years later, the prediction has borne out and the poverty has shifted to the other rez. Now the Spokane would like to see the Kalispel acknowledge that a sister tribe is in need and back away from opposing a West Plains project.

In January, the Spokane tribe officially unveiled its casino proposal — branded as STEP, for Spokane Tribe Economic Project. They served two giant salmon in the ballroom atop the Inn at the Park in downtown Spokane, attracting around 200 business honchos and elected officials. They have also created a website,

The Spokane plan to build, in phases, a casino and hotel complex, surrounded by retail stores, a cultural center, a fire station and EMS facility and possibly a branch campus of Salish Kootenai College. The tribe has partnered with Warner Gaming of Las Vegas, which says it is ready to raise $160 million in private investor money, and the first phase will have 1,500 gaming machines and 30 table games.

Changing Fortunes
A rendering of the Spokane tribe's proposed casino in Airway Heights.

The project will start small, just as Northern Quest did, and is likely to take 15 years to complete. The tribe estimates that the project will ultimately create 3,800 jobs.

They plan to use casino profits to revive some of the shuttered programs that serve the elderly — and hire back people to staff them. They also intend to buy back land on the rez that slipped out of tribal hands, fix crumbling roads and clean up landfill hazards and polluted streams.

The tribe’s first official step will be to submit its Environmental Impact Statement to the Portland office of the BIA. They say they have funneled $1 million into the project, saying it is that important to get it right. Later this year, the impact statement will be publicly released and the tribe will hold a public hearing for additional comments.

The Spokane are seeking a two-part determination, which is the same process the Kalispel used in the mid-1990s and is one of several approved avenues for a tribe to secure an exemption for an off-reservation casino. As indicated by its name, two entities must approve, the feds and then Gov. Christine Gregoire.

First, a tribe must convince the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Secretary of the Interior that gaming will benefit the tribe but not be detrimental to surrounding communities.

The BIA has not made public a timeline for the process, but Spencer says the Spokane expect to break ground in 12 to 14 months, and that opposition arguments about traffic congestion or airport encroachment will not stop the project.

The Kalispel tribe, Nick Pierre says, is formulating a document for the BIA that outlines expected detrimental effects to Northern Quest — and to tribal programs funded by Northern Quest — from a competing casino. The Spokane tribal leaders say they remain optimistic. “We expect to be approved,” Spencer says.

Not Just Us vs. Them

“This is not a Spokane-versus-Kalispel issue,” says Kalispel tribal council member Nick Pierre.

First, he says, there’s a concern that Northern Quest and the programs it funds would take a hit if a new casino opens nearby. Second, he stresses, approval of an off-reservation casino for a tribe that already has casinos would set a bad precedent.

“We are in the early stages of providing information to the [Bureau of Indian Affairs]. Right now, the early indicators are that the proposed off-reservation casino would have a huge negative effect on our ability to serve our members,” Pierre says.

He pivots to the bigger picture, saying, “This is a city-, a state-, a nationwide issue. It is a government-process issue.” Of the nation’s 560-plus Indian tribes, 320 operate gaming facilities, and the Kalispel are one of only five to win an exemption for an off-reservation casino, he adds. They were approved because the reservation was small, remote, and in a flood-plain.

The Spokane tribe, by contrast, has a large reservation and two existing casinos. The tribe does not meet the standard for an exemption, Pierre says.

Changing Fortunes
Young Kwak
The newly expanded Northern Quest Casino, operated by the Kalispel tribe.

Others, however, disagree. “Two Rivers is not a great location. Right now it’s clear to [the Spokane tribe] that Spokane and the surrounding communities is where the market is,” says Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe near Sequim, Wash., and a national authority on tribal gaming. “The Kalispel figured that out, too. They can’t do anything at Usk,” so they’ve gone to trust land near Spokane.

Harold Monteau, a former chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission in the 1990s, supported the Kalispel proposal but disagrees with the tribe’s position now. He has written in support of the Spokane proposal in Indian Country Today.

But when it comes to approval of an off-reservation request, he adds the federal government’s process is murky: “If you look for some regulations in black and white on when the Secretary [of Interior] should do it or when he shouldn’t, it doesn’t exist.”

Former Spokane County Commissioner John Roskelley — along with some Spokane business people — is opposed to the Spokane tribe’s project based on the off-reservation aspect.

“I believe it is breaking federal law,” Roskelley says. “My main concern is the precedent it sets throughout the state that if a tribe such as the Spokane tribe can use trust land for a casino, then there isn’t a piece of land in the state that couldn’t have one” by claiming it to be aboriginal land.

Riffing on a recent Kalispel marketing logo that “what happens in Vegas … happens in Airway Heights,” Roskelley says, “What happens in Airway Heights is going to happen in the rest of Washington.”

But the gap between reservation and casino isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, says Phil Hogen, a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He chaired the National Indian Gaming Commission from 2003 to 2009, and he says that tribes across the country request gaming opportunities on “aboriginal land” that is sometimes several states distant from its reservation.

“The ability to acquire off-reservation land is difficult in any event.

When you’ve got tribes quarreling about whose territory it was originally, it’s tougher. This has happened in quite a number of instances and is not unique to Washington state by any means,” Hogen says.

In his experience, he says, the Spokane case should be a clear candidate for approval.

“There are a lot of similarities in arguments the Kalispel made when they got those lands in Airway Heights that would seem to apply to the reasoning of the Spokanes,” Hogen says. “But when the [Interior] Secretary has to find it’s in the best interest of the tribe but not in adverse interest to another, that’s where it gets dicey.”

Spokane tribal chairman Greg Abrahamson and others say they can hardly be accused of “reservation shopping” because, while the West Plains may not be reservation land, it and the entire Spokane area has been the uncontested ancestral, aboriginal territory of the tribe for thousands of years.

Allen, of the Jameston S’Klallam, adds that, even though the Kalispel just refinanced $210 million in debt from its latest expansion, they probably shouldn’t worry, if the more crowded market of Western Washington tribal casinos along Interstate 5 is any guide.

“When the Snoqualmie opened their casino, it affected the Muckleshoot and the Tulalip,” he says. “[But] are all those casinos doing well? Yes, they are.”

The Synergy Effect

There is a split opinion on joining forces. Some see one-plus-one casinos equaling more than two. Others see one-plus-one casinos equaling less than two.

“By coming in 3.5 miles from Northern Quest, it’s hurting the Kalispel by coming that close,” says Irv Zakheim, who recently organized a coalition of West Plains businesses to oppose the Spokane tribe’s proposal. “If you put another casino in that close together, all you are doing is splitting the pie. You are not ending up with anything more.”

Changing Fortunes
Young Kwak
Irv Zakheim has organized a group of businesses opposing the casino project.

Though Zakheim’s coalition is still fairly small, there is now a website, Among the group’s objections: The Spokane project could create encroachment issues with Fairchild Air Force Base, causing it to close, which would cripple the regional economy. Also, Airway Heights does not have the water or sewer capacity to serve a second casino.

“I think it will be synergistic,” says former county commissioner Bonnie Mager. Mager and Todd Ekstrom, the Airway Heights branch manager for Bank of Whitman, are co-chairs of the Friends of the Spokane Tribe, a group that has formed to counter Zakheim’s.

“I think most of the opposition is competition fear-based,” Mager says. Fairchild officials have consistently told county commissioners there are no encroachment issues, Mager says. A second casino will be a clear economic boost, especially with 1,200 construction and staff jobs created in the early phases, she adds.

Currently, Northern Quest employs 1,700 people and, even before its recent expansion, spent $1.7 million a month to purchase goods and services throughout the community, according to a Kalispel tribe fact sheet.

Over the years, Zakheim says, the Kalispel have reached out and become active members of the community, donating to charities — including the Zak Open golf tournament for the last six years. The tournament, dinner and auction can attract 700 guests and golfers, and Zakheim expects this year’s event will raise a half-million dollars, which is donated to the Rypien Foundation.

Kalispel support has nothing to do with his formal opposition to the Spokane proposal, Zakheim says. “Not a penny goes into my pocket.”

Changing Fortunes
Young Kwak
Airway Heights Mayor Patrick Rushing wants to see local tribes join forces in marketing the region.

Airway Heights Mayor Patrick Rushing, meanwhile, is an enthusiastic supporter of the Spokane tribe’s project. He is a great fan of Northern Quest as well. He’s crashed a couple of meetings of the opposition group, he says, to counter what he calls inaccurate or fear-based arguments. The FAA has signed off on the Spokane project, he says, and so has the Air Force.

“Gen. Raymond Johns, the top brass of the Air Mobility Command, has told me he has no encroachment issues,” Rushing says. He talked to the general at an event in January.

Rushing believes that one-plus-one equals way more than two when casinos operate in proximity. In fact, he hopes for a day when the Coeur d’Alene tribe joins in, too, to market the area’s conferences and entertainment in a way that no single tribe could do.

Last month, he and the Airway Heights City Council wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, noting a projected $50 million payroll from the Spokane tribe’s proposal (at full buildout) will bolster the city’s ability to offer affordable housing and retail developments.

“STEP is a vital partner — as is the Kalispel Tribal Development — in the success of strengthening our region’s most important asset [Fairchild AFB],” the letter states.

Culture Clash

The conflict between the tribes is jarring to some local elected officials. Spokane Mayor Mary Verner, who says the Kalispel approached her about opposing the Spokane’s casino, isn’t taking sides.

“It’s bizarre, actually, to watch this separation based on economic competition,” Verner says. “When tribes gathered here for thousands of years, no wedges were driven between them by competing economic development activity.”

Changing Fortunes
Young Kwak
Michael Spencer of the Spokane tribe, which estimates a new casino would create 3,800 jobs.

Outside her office windows atop City Hall, the Spokane Falls thunder below. Here, for millennia, tribes throughout the region gathered to fish for migrating chinook salmon and to trade.

“They lived off the land and they came here to share. These are generous people … [whose] cultures are cultures of sharing,” Verner says of both the Spokane and Kalispel.

The two tribes, which are closely related, even share members. “The thing is, I’m enrolled Kalispel, but I could have been enrolled Spokane — my father’s Spokane and my mother’s Kalispel,” says Jessie Fountain, a 24-year-old Kalispel tribal member, sitting in the Wellness Center on the Kalispel rez. “I’m still Spokane as well.”

Many members of either tribe interviewed by The Inlander mentioned similar close ties and, universally, expressed distress that the tribes are at odds over the Spokane casino proposal.

Bryan Flett is the son of revered Spokane elder Pauline Flett and is steeped in the history and culture of the tribe. He takes this view: “If you go back 200 years, this area was rich and abundant because of the salmon. During that time, the salmon was the economy.”

Tribes would come from all directions to barter. Tribes from what is now Montana brought dried buffalo meat; others came with dried berries. The goods “were all traded around the salmon,” Flett says.

“If we were able to join forces with the Kalispel and make the two facilities what we think they could be, the tribes would once again be redistributing that wealth. To everybody,” Flett says.

Allen, of the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe, says the tribal cultural values that Verner mentions can come into conflict with the corporate boardroom values that are needed to run any big business in the United States.

Back in the day, most tribes had fluid boundaries, Allen says.

“There are no fences, historically, between tribes across the nation. It’s awkward when you get into gaming. Gaming creates fences.”

Valleyfest @ Spokane Valley

Sat., Sept. 23, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. and Sun., Sept. 24, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.
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About The Author

Kevin Taylor

Kevin Taylor is a staff writer for The Inlander. He has covered politics, the environment, police and the tribes, among many other things.