When residents think about Whatcom County’s largest employers, names like Western Washington University, Alcoa Intalco Works, BP Cherry Point Refinery, Haggen, Brown & Cole and T-Mobile usually come to mind.
Often overlooked, though, is the Lummi Indian Tribe, said Curt Wolters, the tribe’s chief economist.
When taking into account the number of tribal members employed with tribal government, the Northwest Indian College (NWIC), Silver Reef Casino, shellfish farm, fish hatchery, and the Shell and Fisherman’s Cove mini-marts, the Lummi Nation employs more than 700 tribal members, ranking it among the county’s top employers. Including non-tribal members, the number of total people employed on Lummi Nation is likely more than 1,000.
“We generate a lot of activity here in the county,” Wolters said. “The word needs to get out that we’re not just a little appendage sitting out here in splendid isolation, we’re a major player in the Whatcom County economy. Sometimes we’re sort of considered as not really an economic player.”
In 2003, when he began work with the tribe, Wolters made an initial attempt at analyzing the on-reservation economy.
Taking into account components such as tribal government, tribally owned and operated businesses, fishing and shellfish, the NWIC, construction and private businesses, Wolters estimated the tribe’s gross domestic product at $51.9 million.
“This amount significantly benefits the surrounding communities in terms of goods and services sold to the reservation,” he wrote in his report. “Add to this the conservatively estimated $25-plus million in personal and business incomes which annually leave the reservation, and the negative trade balance jumps to $77 million.”
In the future, Wolters and many tribal leaders would like to see more of the money earned on the reservation stay on the reservation.
“We have no grocery stores, no department stores, no Wal-Mart, no mall, bakery, post office,” Wolters said. “Whatever people need, they have to get it off the reservation.”
Opportunities for economic development and attracting investors abound, however, Wolters said.
Lummi, he said, should be marketing a menu of its activities to county residents so “that outsiders want to come and use, partake, observe and otherwise stay to enjoy the many scenic, cultural, artistic, marine-related and culinary attractions the Lummi people have to offer, beside gaming and entertainment at the Silver Reef Casino,” Wolters wrote in a paper earlier this year he prepared for Lummi Indian Business Council decision makers. “Chief among these is the development of marine-oriented recreation activities and complementary or associated upland commercial and social infrastructure at Gooseberry Point.”
Like its past, Lummi’s future may well be tied significantly to the sea, despite a downturn in the commercial fishing industry.
“Lummis are experts at the marine environment,” Wolters said. “At the same time, though, I see 90 percent of the tribe’s fishing boats sitting on land. A good percentage of them could be in the water doing charter fishing, eco-tourism and whale watching.”
Other maritime endeavors Wolters said could be utilized include boat maintenance and repair, marina management, canoe and kayak manufacturing and traditional wood carving of marine and shoreline animals.