The Snoqualmie Indian Tribe is sprawling.
Approximately 500 members, governed by an elected council and tribal constitution, live in areas scattered across the Eastside, from Snoqualmie and North Bend to Issaquah and Mercer Island. After decades of going unrecognized by the federal government — losing recognition in 1953 and regaining it in 1999 — the Snoqualmie Tribe has spent the last two decades building independent economic prosperity.
“Federal recognition helped establish our reservation in important ways,” said Michael Ross, vice chairman of the Tribal Council. Before that recognition, the Tribe did not have a reservation or much prospect of getting money in the bank as it struggled with a tiny budget funded by an annual salmon bake at the Evergreen State Fair.
“Economically,” Ross said, “sovereignty is important to certain taxes and state regulations that shouldn’t apply to tribes, so having that is a huge step forward in really kick-starting our economic development.”
The major piece of building and developing the Tribe’s economy lay in opening its own casino, which came to pass in 2008, after a series of false starts and lost partnerships beginning in 2000. By opening the casino, Ross said, the Tribe was finally able to diversify its income and build a sustainable economic model.
With jobs in the government, casino, and store operations — totaling about 1,800 — the Tribe is one of the biggest employers in the Snoqualmie Valley. According to the 2017 report on the economic impact of the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe, “The gross regional product impact includes tax impacts caused when purchases and payroll ripple through state-taxable economy. Snoqualmie Tribe yielded estimated taxes of … $38.4 million in King County and $44.9 million statewide.” Additionally, some 1,568 of the jobs created by the Tribe can be attributed to its gaming operations.
“A large part of our labor force comes from the local area and neighboring areas,” said Stanford Le, interim CEO and president of the Snoqualmie Casino. “So, (a lot) of the payroll — generally about 40 percent — that comes out of the casino gets recycled back into the community.”
“Among many casinos, it’s on the younger side,” Le continued, referring to the fact that other local tribes had their own casinos established as early as 1992. “But from an accessibility standpoint, we’re probably the easiest casino to get to — we’re 30 minutes outside of downtown Seattle, and only about 20 minutes from Bellevue. And because of that, we get a lot of visitation that ends up going to other businesses in the area, as well.”
The casino also sources many of its goods locally. Le said that, for example, the steakhouse works with six local Washington vendors.
Of course, all of these operations have been starkly impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, which temporarily closed the casino and other economic engines depended on by the Tribe to serve its community.
“Tribal communities and people are resilient and innovative in times like these, and right now we are focusing on taking care of our members and our employees, and trying to help in whatever way we can,” said Jaime Martin, executive director of governmental affairs and special projects for the Snoqualmie Tribe. In late April, she said the Tribe was “donating food to local food banks, helping to secure PPE for the Seattle Indian Health Board, and providing school lunches.”
In the same way the Snoqualmie Tribe has harnessed its resources to care for its community in crisis, it also invests in its community and culture in times of economic prosperity and stability. Along this vein, Ross gestured to the Tribe’s $125 million acquisition of Salish Lodge & Spa and its adjacent land in November 2019 — something for which the Tribe has been fighting for decades, he said, due to its cultural significance to the Snoqualmie people as ancient burial grounds and ancestral land.
“The acquisition of the lodge is the perfect example of how gaming operations allow the Tribe to make valuable investments,” Martin said.
In 2007, before the casino opened, the Tribe tried to purchase the lodge but was outbid by the Muckleshoot Tribe, which bought the land for $62.5 million. With revenue from gaming more than a decade later, Martin explained, purchasing the 45 acres finally was possible, and the Tribe closed a deal in November to buy the land from the Muckleshoot Tribe for twice what the Muckleshoot Tribe paid 13 years ago.
And a main reason the Snoqualmie Tribe wanted to acquire the land, Martin said, was to prevent development: Before the acquisition, plans had been approved by the City of Snoqualmie to build a hotel and conference center, plus more than 100 residential homes on the land adjacent Snoqualmie Falls, which the Snoqualmie Tribe regards as sacred.
“It’s probably one of the biggest land conservation deals in state history,” Ross said of the acquisition. “We’re stopping that development, and we’re just going to keep the land the way it is. We don’t have any plans to change that at the moment.”
Other investments in culture include the Snoqualmie Tribe’s purchase — also last November — of Eighth Generation, a native art business founded by Nooksack tribal member Louie Gong. The Snoqualmie Tribe said that through the purchase of the 13-person business, which is based in Seattle and still led by Gong as its CEO, it hopes to provide resources and strategic support in a way that helps advance Indigenous artists and entrepreneurs.
Moving forward, the Tribe always is looking to increase its income so it can reinvest back into its own members, according to Ross. The Tribe’s government assists members with basic needs associated with housing and health care, which “frees up their own incomes to do other things, like pursue entrepreneurial endeavors,” he said. Hugely important also is the fact that the Tribe covers all educational expenses for its members.
“We have full-ride tuitions for higher education for all tribal members,” Ross said. “Not having the burden of coming out of school with tens of thousands of dollars in debt is a huge jump-start to being able to do things like start a business.”
Added Martin, tribal governments’ economic success benefits the entire state.
“Unlike other companies that come and go, the economic activity generated by tribes will always stay in state,” she said. “It is always going to benefit the local area. We’re not going anywhere.”