Hundreds of members of the Lummi Indian Tribe, a traditional fishing nation, have taken significant financial blows in recent years due to declining salmon runs.
The situation was highlighted in 1999, 2000 and 2001, when fishing was so bleak Lummi was declared a Fishing Disaster Area and an estimated 500 fishers were out of work.
“Many tribal members have found the fishing industry is in crisis. The outlook is not as good as it might be,” said Mike Rawley, the tribe’s director of entrepreneurship. “A lot of tribal members have wanted to start their own businesses and the tribe has realized it needs to make a commitment to working with them.”
Lummi tribal leaders in recent years secured emergency Department of Labor grant money to launch a Dislocated Fishers Program, which trained more than 300 tribal members for employment in new fields such as construction, computer technology and watershed restoration. The tribe also opened a small-business development office at Gooseberry Point where tribal members can go for step-by-step assistance in starting their own businesses. Nearly 100 Lummis have utilized the service.
Employment opportunities on the Lummi reservation are shifting; meet some members of the new Lummi economy.
Tony and Sheila Wilson, T&S Electric, 2071 Lummi Shore Dr.
Growing up, Tony Wilson said, his father, who made a living as an electrician and fisherman, always warned him of the economic perils of fishing.
It was too unpredictable, he’d say, and what would you do if the fish weren’t there?
“I don’t know how he knew, but he’d always say you couldn’t make a year-round living on fishing,” said Wilson. “He always said to learn a second trade you could fall back on.”
So Wilson followed in his father’s footsteps as an electrician. And, like his father, he also fished, when convenient.
Several years ago, Wilson, working as a union electrician, found his line of work was also becoming unpredictable. As his own boss, he reasoned, he’d have more control over when and where he worked.
Wilson, 44, along with his wife Sheila, 35, a union electrician he’d met on a job site, decided in 2003 to start their own business.
A family member told Wilson about Rawley’s small-business development office and he made the call.
In working with Rawley, the Wilsons learned how to put together a business plan, and were introduced to an accountant, banker and lawyer, who helped them incorporate. Their business was up and running after about a month.
“We didn’t know much,” Sheila said. “Without (Rawley’s office) we would’ve probably just found help through the phone book.”
As one of only a few electrical-contracting companies on the reservation — if not the only one — the Wilsons quickly found work, doing residential jobs and working on tribal projects such as a youth drug-treatment center and an apartment complex.
About 90 percent of the jobs the Wilsons have completed have been on the reservation.
Finding success, the Wilsons have wanted to include family and other tribal members in it. They hired two nephews and took on four other apprentices, making them an all-Lummi business. Positions pay $15 an hour.
“Our goal is to try to help out other tribal members and teach the people a new trade,” Sheila said.
The Wilsons have had struggles, as well.
Sheila said they should’ve checked some past employees’ references before hiring them and that without an accounting background it’s been a challenge to keep records in order without professional help.
And, while the Wilsons are making their own hours and have more time for their children, it’s still stressful being a business owner.
“Everything you do relies on you,” said Sheila. “If you don’t do something right, there’s no one to blame but yourself.”
Tony added that tribal members need to take new jobs seriously.
“They have to be willing to work, even if it’s the day after payday or they’re just working a shovel,” he said.
The Wilsons, who grossed $249,000 last year, say they foresee plenty of jobs in the trades for tribal members, as the tribe moves forward with construction projects at the Northwest Indian College and Silver Reef Casino.
“I think opportunities will be real good for quite some time,” Tony said. “The Northwest Indian College says it will be expanding for the next 15 years, and there are lots of other projects planned.”
Robin Finkbonner, R&R Construction, 2501 Mackenzie Rd.
Like many Lummis, Robin Finkbonner said, he’s a commercial fisherman at heart.
For years, he split time between working for the Lummi Tribal Sewer and Water District and operating his own fishing and crabbing boats. But, like many other tribal members, he’s seen his cash flow from fishing decrease in recent years.
“Fishing’s getting squeezed and it’s getting harder and harder to make a living doing that,” he said.
Finkbonner, who learned the construction trade growing up and working for his father’s company, R.C. Finkbonner, Inc., quit his job with the tribe three years ago. He saw the number of the jobs the tribe contracted for and wanted to be a part of it.
Along with his wife, also named Robin, Finkbonner started R&R Construction, which installs underground utilities such as residential and commercial sewer lines.
The tribe didn’t have its small-business office open when he started his new endeavor, so he learned the ins-and-outs of running a business from friends who were business owners.
In addition to getting money to start his business, learning about bookkeeping and taxes proved to be the biggest challenges.
“The hardest thing was to establish a line of credit, I’m still working on that,” he said. “You also have to keep up on computer work and bookkeeping. That’s very important because you definitely don’t want any surprises.”
Like the Wilsons, Finkbonner said for the majority of his work he doesn’t have to leave the reservation. Tribal members, he said, tend to hire other tribal members for jobs.
“Eventually everybody on the reservation finds out about you so you have to try to please everybody the best you can,” he said.
In operating his own business, Finkbonner said he’s learned a lot about himself and what he’s capable of accomplishing.
“I take my construction business just as serious as my fishing,” he said. “I don’t know if what I’m doing is being successful, but I’m getting by and paying my bills. There’s only one way to get your work done and that’s by putting your head down and doing a good job.”