Retraining, investments in economic redevelopment point way to tribe’s business potential
For generations, tribal members of the Lummi Indian Nation have relied on fishing and marine harvesting as their main economic activities and livelihoods.
And this time of year, traditionally prime time for salmon fishing, it would see the gillnetters and purse seiners in Fisherman’s Cove abuzz with activity in years long past.
The bustle and action these days, though, isn’t taking place on Gooseberry Point’s docks, but rather at the adjacent Lummi Employment & Training Center (ETC).
In the old two-story building, where nearly 30 tribal members are employed, Henry Cagey, a former Lummi tribal chairman who now serves as the nation’s director of economic development, ponders the next steps for the tribe’s recently created entity, Portage Bay Construction. Mike Rawley, the center’s director of entrepreneurship, fields phone calls from tribal members who’ve recently started small businesses, and Jana Finkbonner, the center’s executive director, prepares to open a new training room where tribal members can learn job-seeking skills like resume writing and interviewing.
The Lummis are a nation in change.
With local salmon resources declining significantly in past decades, and hundreds of fishers finding themselves without predictable work, Lummi tribal officials have recognized the need to create new economic-development opportunities.
“Fishing’s always been the center of our manner of being, not just economically but culturally,” said Lummi Tribal Chairman Darrell Hillaire. “It was quite devastating when the very fabric of our community was taken away. Our quality of life has changed from a fishing community into something we’re still defining and adapting to.”
While the tribe’s Silver Reef Casino, which opened in 2002, has proven to be a boost to the Lummi economy, employing nearly 300 people, including more than 100 Lummis, and generating an estimated $28 million to the on-reservation gross domestic product, many tribal leaders want to grow and diversify further and become an even bigger economic engine in Whatcom County.
“In the next five to 10 years, there’s going to be a big change in how the tribe does business,” said Cagey, as he gazed out his open second-story window, which overlooks the oft-idle fishing boats. “The tribe’s getting a little more sophisticated in the business world. We’re getting more involved in economic activities and there’s going to be a big shift in getting the tribe more diversified from just gaming. We’re looking for more opportunities that will allow us to make gaming more of a secondary opportunity.”
One way the tribe is determining what economic opportunities to pursue is simply by asking its members.
In April, the tribe completed a study looking at the nation’s work skills to give tribal leaders an idea of what types of employment they should be seeking for the nation.
“The main (employment) recommendations that are going to be coming forward are for construction, transportation and moving,” Cagey said.
Cagey and many other tribal leaders say construction projects on or near the reservation alone may provide employment opportunities in the trades for years to come.
Current and future construction projects being discussed by the Lummis in the near future include:
A 20,794-square-foot apartment building, a 2,278-square-foot daycare center and a 4,252-square-foot faculty building at the Northwest Indian College, with additional buildings planned over the next 15 years.
A six-story, 105-room hotel and spa at the casino, and, upon its completion, a possible bowling alley or theater.
A business park for light manufacturing is being discussed, possibly near the intersection of Kwina Road and Haxton Way.
A cultural/visitor center, pavilion for native arts and crafts, and potential seafood stand, smokehouse and liquor store on 3.2 acres near the intersection of Slater Road and Rural Road, a project that’s likely to be an interlocal agreement between the tribe and City of Ferndale.
A possible marina near the Gooseberry Point ferry dock.
With a building boom foreseen on the reservation, the tribe last year created Portage Bay Construction. The six-member, all-native entity has already done work on two residential homes in Ferndale and another in Bellingham.
“The goal of Portage Bay is a three-track process,” Cagey said. “We want to employ tribal members to do work on the reservation, we want to establish a track record in construction and, once we get a track record, we want to find a mentor-protégé partner to work with managing and acquiring federal contracts.”
Rawley, the tribe’s director of entrepreneurship, said construction both on and off the reservation has also led numerous tribal members who work in the trades to his office. One thought is that job opportunities will be available to them through Portage Bay Construction because when it pre-selects subcontractors it will likely give preference in hiring to tribal members and other natives.
“Do they get special treatment, yes they do, because that’s the tribe’s construction company and we’ve got to support our subcontractors,” Rawley said.
In addition to construction jobs on the reservation, Rawley said, now’s also a good time to be a subcontractor elsewhere around the county.
“It’s no secret we’re in one of the hottest housing markets and construction markets in all of the United States,” he said.
And, in step with the tribe’s predicted need for moving and transportation businesses, one tribal member recently worked with Rawley to open Kinley Enterprises, a small fleet of transport and dump trucks.
Rawley, who operated several commercial fishing boats in Alaska before being hired by the tribe in 2003, has worked with 93 tribal members, mostly former fisher, seeking to become small business owners, from cosmetologists to watershed-restoration specialists.
Through Rawley’s office, a free service to tribal members, he walks clients through a 15-step process, which can take more than a year to complete, and culminates in their starting their own small business. The process includes:
Discussing conceptual ideas.
Identifying obstacles and strengths.
Setting up appointments with bookkeepers, insurance agents, loan providers and attorneys.
Establishing prices for goods and services.
After the business is launched, Rawley provides a quarterly review and continues to offer assistance as needed.
“Essentially what we want to do is create good business habits,” Rawley said. “We want to make sure they’re not going to run afoul of people like the Department of Revenue, Labor and Industries and the big, ugly IRS. We want to make sure these people can sleep at night.”
Six tribal members thus far have gone all the way through the program, Rawley said. In 2004, their businesses totalled $1.3 million in gross earnings and employed 32 Lummi tribal members.
For many of his clients, he said, entrepreneurship comes naturally.
“Lummi, like many other Coast Salish people, have their heritage in fishing,” said Rawley. “They have generations of experience in fishing and they’re predisposed through their background to be self starters and get out and work and provide for themselves. I see entrepreneurship as a transition from that. Some of the basic skills that made them a good fishing people will hold them in a new endeavor as they move forward.”
The outside world
Worker retraining and preparing tribal members for doing business off the reservation and outside of traditional work has not been without its challenges, though.
In the aftermath of the failed 2001 salmon season, which forced the tribe to declare itself a Fisheries Disaster Area for a third-consecutive year, the tribe, through a grant from the Department of Labor, established a Dislocated Fishers Program.
The program, which ended in June, offered courses that taught tribal members new skills, such as construction, early childhood education, cabinetry, flower arrangement, computer skills and job-interviewing strategies. More than 300 fishers and their family members participated in the program.
Despite the efforts, morale among some tribal members was low.
“The ultimate goal was for everyone in the program to be retrained out of the fishing industry but, being from a fishing community, that’s a hard thing to do,” Finkbonner said. “How can you just give up what you’ve done culturally for generations? Families gave up their livelihoods and who they were as people and men. It takes a lot of your pride away.”
Once graduated from the program and working in jobs off the reservation, some tribal members continued to struggle with their new environments.
With fishing, work came in spurts — several days or weeks of hard labor followed by some down time to recuperate. Many of the new jobs tribal members entered were of the 9-to-5 variety.
Also, the set structure of workplaces off the reservation posed a challenge to some, as on the reservation attitudes oftentimes are more easy going.
And, with jobs on the reservation, some things are just expected. For example, if there’s a death of a tribal member, most tribal members — not just immediate family and friends — take time off to attend a funeral. When there’s a fishing or crab opening, many tribal members, even though they don’t work in the industry full time, return to their boats or work with others as deckhands.
“There’s a lot of things that are just understood (with employers) out here, like dealing with funerals and seasonal activities. People are more tolerant here,” said Finkbonner.
For graduates of the Dislocated Fishers Program, which ended in June, Finkbonner said job counselors in the program would frequently contact their new employer and explain circumstances.
“Counselors would work closely with supervisors to make sure both sides knew where the other was coming from,” she said.
As more Lummis enter jobs off the reservation, cultural issues will continue to need to be addressed, said Curt Wolters, the tribe’s chief economist.
“The Lummis are a traditional fishing nation and when fishing time comes around people sort of drop whatever they’re doing and go fishing. But, that’s not the way the modern economy is run,” he said. “What we need to do, when the Lummi go out there (into other industries) off the reservation, they need to negotiate a contract to make sure their vacation time coincides with fishing and crabbing. That’s doable, and other employees will have to get used to it because this is a different culture and they will have to accommodate some cultural differences, which is quite legitimate.”
Tom Dorr, director of Western’s Small Business Development Center, who’s worked with tribal officials in recent years in providing mentorship and counseling for the tribe’s potential small-business owners, said native and non-natives working together need to have patience for one another.
“You really are dealing with a different cultural entity that you need to be sensitive to,” he said.
‘You cannot see the future with tears in your eyes’
Admittedly, the Lummis are arriving late to the area’s economic table. Wolters, however, said they’ve been at a disadvantage since the signing of the Point Elliot Treaty in 1855 and their delegation to the reservation.
“Prior to 1855, when the Lummi Nation harvested the marine environment and hunted and gathered, their land expanded far beyond what is now the reservation and the tribe was comparatively rich,” Wolters said. “It produced excess it could trade with neighboring tribes and trappers and no one ever went hungry. However, the area to which the tribe was delegated was just a fraction of the natural resource area they enjoyed before. They were left with the peninsula and really fell on hard times.”
In the last century, Wolters said, when Lummis did venture off the reservation for work they often got jobs white Americans didn’t necessarily want, like cannery work. Also, Lummis didn’t have an education system that allowed them to prepare for jobs in the modern economy.
When addressing economic development for the tribe today, Wolters said he often thinks of a Mohawk saying: “You cannot see the future with tears in your eyes.”
A major step toward becoming a notable player in the local economy occurred in the late 1980s, Wolters said, when the Lummis were granted self governance, giving them direct access to federal and state monies previously funneled to the tribe through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
That, too, posed challenges, though.
“It’s been difficult to take time to participate in any sort of business planning in the county,” Cagey said. “Our energy was more focused on government-to-government relationships and on tribal education, health, natural resources and housing.”
Cagey said gaming, more than anything, has changed the tribe’s revenue and allowed it to focus more on economic opportunities.
Of casino revenues, 40 percent go the Lummi Indian Business Council’s general fund and 60 percent go toward economic development. Revenues have allowed the tribe to expand services at tribal headquarters and start new programs like the ETC, which was formed in 1998 to bring all employee-training programs into one central area.
“Casinos are a cash cow that allow a community to engage in productive enterprises,” Wolters said. “The theory is once we get economic activities going and once we have them to the point they start to operate, we’ll hive them off to the Lummi Commercial Company, which manages for-profit businesses that are owned by the tribe.”
Tribal projects such as the gateway/pavilion at Rural and Slater, college and casino expansion investments in education, such as the ETC, and last year’s opening of the $25 million Lummi Nation Tribal School, have been examples to county officials in business and government that the Lummis are indeed committed economic partners.
The interlocal agreement with the City of Ferndale stands out especially with Cagey as an example of the tribe’s willingness to be an economic partner.
“The City of Ferndale has chosen to work with the Lummi Nation in signing an accord on an economic development project we can both be working toward,” he said. “We want to create a visitors center at the location that will showcase both the City of Ferndale and the Lummi Nation. If we keep the relationship strong, both the city and tribe become winners. What this means to us is that there may be other opportunities where the City of Ferndale recognizes that the Nation is becoming an economic engine and we can help each other.
“Accords begin opening doors,” he said. “We haven’t done that with the City of Bellingham or Whatcom County yet, but it takes time.”
Ferndale Mayor Jerry Landcastle said he envisions the tribe as major players in the future of Whatcom County’s economic development.
“We look forward to being able to do this (project),” he said. “We think there are some long-term positive things we can do together and we think it’s way past due.”
Whatcom County Executive Pete Kremen also said he’s been impressed with economic-development initiatives the tribe has undertaken recently.
“They have a fairly aggressive economic-development plan and it appears to be more concentrated and more ambitious than in years past,” he said. “I don’t have a crystal ball but I think there is a significant amount of potential for the Lummi Nation to increase its economic vibrancy and overall participation in the local economy.”
Being aggressive has been good for the tribe, Wolters said.
“If you look at the history of the world, the only constant over millions of years has been change,” he said. “People and animals and environments that adapt to change survive, those that fail to adapt to change are left behind. That’s not a theory, that’s a law.”