In February 2015, amid the cedar masks, canoe paddles and totem poles at the Tulalip Resort Casino north of Seattle, the talk was all about pot. Indian country had been abuzz about cannabis since the previous autumn, when the Justice Department had released a memorandum which seemed to open the way for tribal cannabis as a manifestation of tribal sovereignty. (I grew up Ojibwe on a reservation in Minnesota, and I use the word “Indian” to refer to indigenous people within the US. I also use “indigenous”, “Native” and “American Indian”. These terms have come in and out of favour over the years, and different tribes, and different people, have different preferences.)
The gathering at Tulalip was technically a legal education conference, so a slew of lawyers in thousand-dollar suits were there, of course, but so were private-equity entrepreneurs, tribal officials and tribal potheads. One of the last – a gangly twenty- or thirty something wearing Chuck Taylors, a very ripped T-shirt and a headband that held back his lank hair – slouched low in his chair and didn’t speak a word all day. His companions spoke a bit more, but with the sleepy demeanour of people who have just purchased a dime bag and smoked it all. They didn’t talk business as much as they talked relationships: We have a relationship with pot. It’s a medicine from Mother Earth. Like, cannabis is tribal. It’s consistent with our relationship with Mother Earth.
Wandering among them were tribal small-business owners, people who ran gravel companies or sold smoked fish or espresso along the freeway. They had forked over $500 for lunch and a name tag to explore what marijuana legalisation might mean for their community – or maybe to explore where the pay dirt lay at the intersection of legalisation and tribal sovereignty.
The lawyers and policy people gave talks about state laws; the history of marijuana legalisation in California, Colorado and Washington; and the social, cultural and political ramifications of legalisation. Tribal leaders spoke about the ways in which tribal growing could be a whole new revenue stream, if not a new tribal industry. Behind these discussions were coded questions, old and new: How best to provide for a people in the absence of industry and opportunity? How to use tribal sovereignty to the best possible effect? Did tribes really want to invest in another “lifestyle economy” like tobacco shops, casinos and tourism? No one knew what to make of the potheads.
The received notion – reinforced at every turn in editorials and investigative pieces and popular culture – is that reservations are where Indians go to suffer and die. They are seen by many Indians as well as non-Indians not as expressions of tribal survival, however twisted or flawed, but as little more than prisons, expressions of the perversion of American democratic ideals into greed – a greed rapacious enough to take Indian land and decimate Indian populations, but not quite harsh enough to annihilate us outright.
But reservations are not stagnant places. Despite their staggering rates of unemployment, they are home not only to traditional ways of living but to new tribal business as well. Pot as a tribal industry has a parent: the casino. Arguably, the casino’s arrival in Indian country had as defining an effect on the social and economic lives of Indians in the past 50 years as the mass migration of Indians to American cities. Many Indians refer to the time before tribal gaming as “BC” – Before Casino.
By 1987, gaming enterprises were under way across the country, with the biggest concentration of casinos in California and Oklahoma. The courts were still deliberating the questions of rights v regulation, but Indians – having waited in so many ways for so many years to have their sovereignty affirmed – were not. The increase in funding for tribal programmes throughout the 70s, the emphasis on improving access to education, support for the poor, funding for healthcare – all of this positioned Indians to move, and move fast. By the mid-80s, elected tribal leaders had gained 40 years of experience in Indian Rights Association governments, and 40 years of experience in dealing with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and state and federal governments.
They had become expert at playing with soft power, and were prepared to make the most of the opportunity for gaming. Within a year of the tribes winning the right to open casinos in California, gaming was bringing in $100m a year. The door to economic development – at least in the realm of gambling – seemed to have been flung wide open.
But not so fast: the states, a powerful lobby in their own right, were determined to have a stake in Indian gambling, or at least some measure of control. The federal government felt the same way. So in 1988, Congress passed and Reagan signed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (Igra), which codified the process by which tribes administered gambling.
After the act was passed, Indian gaming boomed. Revenues grew from $100m in 1988 to more than $26bn in 2009 – more than Vegas and Atlantic City took in combined. Despite the influx of money in general, however, gaming changed little for most Indians. This is America, after all. Like all American avenues to wealth, casinos privilege the few and leave out the majority. But, at Tulalip, signs of a possible third way have emerged.
It might seem surprising to suggest that, in order to find America, you need to look at Indian communities and reservations. But it’s true. The questions posed by America’s founding documents and early history – What is the reach of the federal government? What should it be? How to balance the rights of the individual against those of the collective? What is, at the end of the day, the proper role of the federal government in our social structures and lives? How to balance the demands of community and modernity? How to preserve, protect and foster the middle class? – are answered by looking at Indians, at our communities and our history.
Two months after the “pot summit”, I sat across from Eddy Pablo in a Minneapolis casino. He had come armed with notes and handouts about marijuana legalisation, medical uses of marijuana, and tribal dispositions about legalisation and capitalisation at Tulalip. Eddy is about 5ft 10in, with an absurdly strong build, dark skin, small eyes and spiky black hair in a neat crew cut. He’s 31, with three children, and he is on the make.
This was followed by depression and tutoring. He made it to community college but it didn’t stick. He ran afoul of the law and landed in jail. After he got out, he got hooked on diving for geoduck (freshwater clams). “You don’t get to dive very much. Maybe eight days a year. But a boat can make 13k in three hours.” Eddy becomes more animated when he talks about being on the water.
The next day he picks me up to go digging for clams on Cama Beach Point. His car is packed with five-gallon buckets, shovels, rakes and his son, Cruz, tucked in the backseat. As we drive, he points out the landmarks. The Tulalip Reservation – 22,000 acres of Indian land – sits between Interstate 5 and Puget Sound just north of Seattle. It is indescribably beautiful.
“That’s where I grew up,” he says, pointing at a nondescript house facing a silty bay that was, until relatively recently, thick with salmon. Cedar, until recently, grew down to the shore.
Unlike most tribes, people here are doing all right, economically speaking. In fact, they are doing very well. The median household income at Tulalip is a comfortable $68,000 per year, well above the national average. Tribal members do get a per-capita payment from gaming revenues, though according to Eddy it’s not more than $15,500 a year.
The tribe, as a collective, as a business, is doing better as well. Every tribal building is new. The tribal office where Eddy picked up our permit is a soaring architectural treasure. There’s also the youth centre, the museum, the cultural centre – all of them cedar-clad. Where once the tribe’s wealth could be measured in fish, it can now be measured in income and infrastructure.
As for Eddy, without a college degree and with three kids to support, he hustles. He sees marijuana as something that can be added to the mix. “We should get in the business,” he says. “Not just opening dispensaries. Or growing. Our sovereignty can give us a leg up. We should grow, process and dispense. We could control the whole chain.” I wonder out loud if the tribe really wants to hitch itself to another lifestyle economy – like cigarettes and gambling.
By now we’ve reached the beach. We have only an hour, two at most, while the tide is out, to dig and sort. Soon the water will come back in and cover the clam beds, and they will be lost to us. So much of life at Tulalip has the same kind of rhythm – small windows in which one can make a lot of money, slow spells when none is to be made, and then another hard push. It’s not the kind of labour that breeds confidence or even certainty: no clocking in, working, clocking out, and pulling in a wage and benefits. So how, I ask, does he make ends meet? What’s his job?
He gets his per-cap from the tribe. He crabs a few days. He dives a few days. He goes after geoduck and sea cucumber and salmon. And in the same manner he runs his fireworks stand at Boom City in the summer.
“You’ve got to see it,” he says. “You wouldn’t believe it. A fireworks bazaar. Bigger than anything. And there’s a place to light them off. It’s like world war three.” He seems to think this is a good thing. And in a way I suppose it is, just like his whole operation: a patchwork of opportunities that are exploited aggressively and together add up to a living. A good one.
“We have a story,” says Eddy as we drive away. Cruz is asleep in his car seat. “When all else fails, we were instructed to dig. The clams are always there. There’s food waiting there.”
In addition to opening new avenues to wealth – and creating a wealth gap in Indian country – casinos have had another major effect: they’ve thrown into stark relief the vexing question of who gets to be Indian at all.
America’s first “blood-quantum” law was passed in Virginia in 1705, in order to determine who had a high enough degree of Indian blood to be classified an Indian – and whose rights could be restricted as a result. Blood quantum was simply a measure of how much Indian blood (full blood, half, quarter, eighth) a person had. It was often wildly inaccurate, culturally incongruous and socially divisive. It is still used to determine who can be an enrolled member of some federally recognised tribes, and it is just as divisive now as it was then.
You’d think, after all these years, we’d finally manage to kick the concept. But recently, casino-rich Indian tribes in California, Michigan, Oregon and other states have been using it themselves to disenroll those whose tribal bloodlines, they say, are not pure enough to share in the profits.
As of 2017, more than 50 tribes across the country have banished or disenrolled at least 8,000 tribal members in the past two decades. Many different rationales have been used to justify it, but it’s telling that 73% of the tribes actively kicking out tribal members have gaming operations.
What’s fascinating to me is that the whole question of culture didn’t become part of the conversation about who is and who isn’t Indian at all until the period AC – After Casinos. True, being Indian (as something one did in addition to being something one simply was) began back with the Red Power movement and was amplified by the American Indian Movement (AIM), which, at the start, was primarily concerned with Indians’ economic independence and freedom from police brutality. But in those early discussions and actions, being Indian was more a matter of politics and emotional affinity than a matter of culture. Even the religions claimed by AIM were antagonistic and political: AIMsters danced the Sun Dance as a way of saying “We’re not you” more than as a positive assertion of religious identity. But after casinos began injecting millions and then hundreds of millions and then billions of dollars into Indian economies, culture really came to the fore of discussions of Indianness.
By the end of the 1990s, there was enough cushion for enough Indians and enough money to begin pondering, in earnest, what being Indian meant. They had enough space in their lives to want to connect to their tribes in ways that were value-positive, that didn’t see being Indian as a matter of being a full-blood or being enrolled or being simply “dark”, as had been the case when I was growing up. Rather, being Indian became a matter of knowing your language, attending ceremony, harvesting game and wild rice or piñon or salmon. Being Indian was still to some degree a matter of blood, but it was also in the process of becoming about much more.
The struggles of Indian people across the country are bound up in what it means to be Indian. But to be Indian is not to be poor or to struggle. To believe in sovereignty, to let it inform and define not only one’s political and legal existence but also one’s community, to move through the world imbued with the dignity of that reality, is to resolve one of the major contradictions of modern Indian life: it is to find a way to be Indian and modern simultaneously.
The cannabis industry has started modestly at Tulalip. It is unclear what it will bring or where it will end. Some, like Eddy, think pot shouldn’t necessarily be a tribal enterprise, but rather something tribal individuals can participate in, another small-business opportunity that can help make up an income. But how the tribe will exploit the cannabis market collectively is an open question, dependent not only on the unique politics at Tulalip but also on the way tribes do business in general.
Les Parks, the former tribal vice-chairman of the Tulalip and current treasurer, has been at the forefront in trying to get the tribe into the business. While vice-chairman, he put together the “pot summit”. But after the summit and a subsequent election, Les stepped down, having “shot his bolt” on the whole issue, according to him, and having failed to overrule those who opposed the idea. As on most other reservations, tribal enterprise at Tulalip is controlled by a small group of people who have grown up together in a very small community. A small village council can control millions on millions of dollars, and so big decisions are often, at their core, made for very personal reasons.
I’m met by Les, in bolo tie, boots and a very large, very new pickup truck. Les is proud of his community, and he has obviously given the tour of the reservation many times. But when I ask how much the casino makes, or the fisheries, or anything else, he is evasive. “Oh, we do OK. Every year we send $62m in taxes to Olympia. That should give you an idea.”
It’s understandable that a wildly successful tribe like the Tulalip don’t want to say how much they’re pulling in. The federal government has treaty obligations to the Tulalip to provide for housing and services, among other things – obligations that, when all is going well, the government is only too happy to let slide. So the fiscal rhetoric of reservations, if not the social rhetoric, is always one of want and need.
Les veers down a long, narrow road that ends near a creek feeding into the sound. This is where his family’s original allotment was. “My great-great-grandfather must have been important because this was a good place to live, right next to the creek. It would have been full of salmon.” But Les has suffered like so many Indians have suffered: he lost his mother to a drunk driver, his father wasn’t around very much. The house he grew up in, long gone – rotted or burned or pulled down – was of rough-cut lumber and tar paper. He had a lot of brothers and sisters. There wasn’t much to go around.
Many of the people I talked to had similar stories – fathers and brothers lost to the sea, heavy drinking, absentee parents, poor living conditions. Here as elsewhere, survival was the principal challenge for Indians for well over a century. And from Les’s story, like others, it’s clear that a tolerance for conflict, pain and uncertainty – a kind of wild and unpredictable daily drama – has been necessary to that survival. What, then, allows growth? What are the ingredients necessary for a community not only to make money, but to grow real wealth?
“My sister-in-law got Parkinson’s disease. It was horrible to watch. Pot helped her. It helped her pain a lot.” But Les doesn’t want the tribe to sell pot. Or to only sell it. “I want us to use our sovereignty to fast-track clinical trials for the uses of marijuana extracts. We could do it faster and better than any of the pharmaceutical companies out there. We’re already talking to Bastyr University. That’s where I want us to go. There are a lot of uses for extracts and there is no pharmaceutical company in North America that is looking in that direction. We could be the first.” He looks off over the sound. “There’s even some research that suggests cannabis extracts can be used to cure type 2 diabetes. Think about that. Think about an Indian company, a tribal pharmaceutical company, that could cure the greatest threat to our health.”
Fifteen per cent of American Indians have diabetes, and in some communities in the south-west, the rate is as high as 22%. And diabetes is only part of the problem. Along with high dropout, unemployment and poverty rates, Indians have a mortality rate from accidental death that is twice the national average. Life, for many of us, is not merely bleak: it’s short, poor, painful, unhealthy and tumultuous.
Just as Les moved from poverty to relative comfort in about 30 years, so too has the tribe. According to the Tribal Employment Rights Organization (Tero), there are 62 registered small businesses owned and operated by Indians on the Tulalip Reservation right now, but since businesses register annually, that swells to more than 160 when there’s a big project on the books. And that figure doesn’t seem to include fishermen (there were by my count more than 20 boats in the fleet) or the 139 tribally owned and operated fireworks stands at Boom City, or tribal businesses in areas that are, technically at least, off the reservation. When I add all that up, I figure at least a few hundred Indians are in on the hustle – no different, in their way, from the many who sell crafts on Etsy, auction game on eBay, plough driveways and make T-shirts on the side. There is, despite historical oppression and in contrast to the received stereotypes about Indians, an active and thriving entrepreneurial class at Tulalip.
The tribe has opened a dispensary, but hasn’t given up on Les’s bigger vision. “Even if we can’t do it, it should be done,” he says. I can’t help agreeing. Why shouldn’t the tribe, surrounded as it is by Boeing and Microsoft and Amazon, wed tribal enterprise and wealth to technological enterprise and wealth? A pharmaceutical company could be the way to bring Tulalip’s economy out from under the lifestyle economies that have marked, till now, tribal enterprise.
Tribal power is an interesting thing. With a structure like Tulalip’s, power rests in the hands of a very few, and the absence of term limits makes it very easy to keep doing the same thing but very, very hard to do anything new.
Boom City is exactly how it sounds. For two weeks leading up to the Fourth of July, the largest fireworks bazaar west of the Mississippi rises from the gravel on a vacant lot near the casino. Plywood shanties are trucked to the site and arranged in neat rows. The awnings are opened and the sale begins. Each of the 139 stands is stuffed with fireworks. All of the stands are Native-owned, and the action is administered by a board of directors, which in turn is administered by the tribe. All of the stands are painted brightly, and many bear equally colourful names: Up in Smoke, One Night Stand, Boom Boom Long Time, Porno for Pyro, Titty Titty Bang Bang. Others bespeak proud ownership: Mikey’s, Eddy’s, Junior’s.
It’s slow when I arrive at Eddy’s stand, but even so there is a lot of money changing hands. Fireworks – like gaming and, to a lesser extent, tobacco – are regulated by the state. And as sovereign nations, Indian tribes in states such as Washington, where fireworks are illegal, enjoy a monopoly on their sale. I find Eddy deep in his stand, trying to avoid the sun.
“The weather’s keeping people away. Too hot.” He also tells me business is slow because someone was caught earlier that day selling illegal fireworks nearby, and the incident has made customers skittish. “By Friday the cars will be backed up to the highway,” Eddy assures me. “If you’re the last man standing with a full load of fireworks on the last day, you can sell it all.”
The wholesalers set up shop on the outskirts of Boom City and circle around taking orders for the vendors. There are two espresso stands and a few food stands. Someone has lined the back of their pickup with a tarp and filled it with water, and five kids cavort and splash in it. Other kids, as young as four or five, walk through the stands chirping “Iced tea! Pop! Gatorade!” in a miniature mimic of the men and women selling fireworks who have perfected the banter of bazaar merchants the world over.
In the afternoon, the sound of fireworks – many and large – can be heard nearby. There’s a field on the edge of Boom City set aside for setting them off. Just as fireworks can be sold on the “rez” but not in the state, so too can they be exploded on the rez. And Boom City is happy to provide the space. It’s a free-for-all. Rockets, mortars, roman candles, spinners. They all go off at once and continuously. A haze settles over the lot like the haze over a battlefield. Periodically, the security guards call a halt to the explosions, but only to make room for even larger ones: tribal members – and this seems to be a uniquely cultural thing – will light off upward of $1,000 worth of fireworks as a “memorial” for someone in their family who has passed on. They are remembered with an exploding wall of sound.
Ideas aren’t quietly laid to rest here either. Having explored the possibility of teaming up with the Lummi nation to start a pharmaceutical company, and having met with resistance there as well, Les Parks has recently taken the project back. Political power waxes and wanes, and as the dynamics on the council shifted, Les, visionary and dogged, has brought the idea of a pharmaceutical company back to Tulalip. This time he has more support.
I wander back to Eddy’s, dazed by the fireworks and by everything else I’ve seen at Tulalip. What I have seen here isn’t just what a tribe could be (though there was that, too) but what America might be. If only. Tulalip is a conglomeration of separate tribes that came together (by choice, circumstance and under pressure) to form a nation. It has suffered its own internal divisions and traumas. It has endured natural and civic disasters, gone through recession and poverty and joblessness. But it has found a way to provide free healthcare for all its citizens, free education for those who want it, free (excellent) childcare for working parents, a safe and comfortable retirement option for its elders, and a robust safety net woven from per-capita payments that, while barely enough to support a single person and not enough to fully support a family, are enough to encourage its citizens to venture into enterprises small and large. The nation provides for its most vulnerable citizens – the young and the old. And it provides enough security for the people in between life’s beginnings and ends so that they can really see what they might become.
This is an edited extract from The Heartbeat at Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present by David Treuer, published by Corsair on 28 March
Headline Illustration: Chris Clarke