Cohesive Tribal Government Is Critical For Economic Development

(Ken Lambert/Seattle Times)

While the appropriateness of government intervention in private business is a hotly-debated topic around the world, a clear truth is emerging closer to home: cohesive and sound governance is a crucial element for economic development in Native American communities. The proof comes both from success stories such as Tulalip and Pechanga, as well as the cautionary tale currently playing out within the Snoqualmie Tribe.

The Snoqualmie Tribe regained federal recognition in 1999 and last November opened a showpiece casino a half-hour from downtown Seattle The casino, financed with $375 million in debt, was conceived as a means of bringing prosperity to the Tribe's approximately 600 members. Instead, political infighting has brought turmoil, reduced revenue, and uncertainty regarding the Tribe’s economic future.

The problems stem from socio-political divisions that divided the Tribe’s governing body and rendered it unable to function effectively. "They were a split council and would not come together for joint meetings off and on since May," said Judy Joseph, superintendent for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Puget Sound Agency. "To maintain a government-to-government relationship, they have to be a viable Tribal government," Joseph said. "If there is any question about that, it causes red flags to go up, and they were split, they were not meeting."  In August, the Tribe's administrative offices were padlocked and some of its federal funds frozen. Elders stepped in to dissolve the council and take charge until new elections could be held — but they had no constitutional authority to do that. The Tribe was facing the prospect of the U.S. government assuming administrative control of the Tribal government. The BIA offered mediation this month, which resulted in reinstatement of the council that was in place before the disputed May election.

Meanwhile, the new casino has only been producing one-fourth of the revenue originally budgeted, and its operations are mired in administrative and regulatory problems. Unresolved federal audit findings could expose the Tribe to significant liability, and until recently federal funds allocations to Snoqualmie were frozen by the U.S. government. To address these significant issues, the Tribe's general membership will meet this month to consider election procedures and set a date for a new council election.

While dissension and differences of opinion are common for any political entity, the need for Tribes to maintain a solid, functioning government structure is of paramount importance for both political and economic purposes. Both the federal government and private investors are wary of contributing capital in places where leadership is in doubt, making it crucial for Tribes to demonstrate that their decision making bodies and procedures are stable.

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