SUQUAMISH — It wasn’t always this way, Suquamish Tribal Council member Bardow Lewis recalled of the relationship between the Suquamish Tribe and its neighbors.
At one time, there was “us” and there was “them,” he said, and it took leaders like Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman and Poulsbo’s mayors – the new relationship started in 2005 under then-Mayor Donna Jean Bruce – to change that.
“I’m proud to be part of it,” Lewis said of Suquamish and Poulsbo’s relationship of collaboration and friendship.
The relationship between the Poulsbo city government and Suquamish Tribe government is the subject of the cover story in the July/August edition of Cityvision magazine, the publication of the Association of Washington Cities. The edition is in the hands of decision-makers in Washington’s 281 cities, as well as state legislators.
The story is timely; it comes as state and Tribal governments are at odds on such issues as replacement of fish-blocking culverts, ensuring shoreline development doesn’t alter fish habitat, and toughening pollution standards so fish are safer to eat.
In Tulalip, a dispute between Snohomish County, the State of Washington and the Tulalip Tribes over county taxation of business transactions conducted on Indian land — which the Tulalip Tribes contends is a violation of the U.S. Constitution — could not be resolved and is now in federal court, with the Tulalip Tribes as plaintiff.
As Ted Katauskas writes in his Cityvision cover story, “Keeping Counsel,” Washington’s cities and Tribes are finding that gathering together and listening to one another “can promote respect, build trust, provide a foundation for mutually beneficial action, and even foster friendship.”
Through that respect, trust and friendship comes understanding that can head off a lot of problems like the aforementioned, AWC Executive Director Peter King said.
“The first step is to make sure people are talking, to understand the Tribe’s perspective,” King said.
King, Poulsbo Mayor Becky Erickson, and Poulsbo City Council member Ed Stern (who is secretary of the AWC) presented copies of the magazine on Aug. 28 at a meeting of the Suquamish Tribal Council.
Erickson said the article is “testimony to our mutual friendship.” Forsman thanked the city for “working with us and encouraging this collaboration. We’ve made a lot of progress, and avoided a lot of conflict.”
King admits Tribal authority, culture, governance and jurisdiction is “complicated.”
Poulsbo is within the historical territory of the Suquamish Tribe, a signatory of the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott, one of seven treaties through which the United States gained ownership of the land that became Washington state.
In exchange for their land, the Tribes received certain guarantees and they reserved land for their people. They never ceded their right to fish in their usual and accustomed areas. And they never ceded their inherent right to govern themselves.
“Indian nations had always been considered as distinct, independent political communities, retaining their original natural rights, as the undisputed possessors of the soil,” U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in Worcester v. Georgia (1832). “The very term nation so generally applied to them, means ‘a people distinct from others.’ ”
The Treaty of Point Elliott carries as much weight as a U.S. treaty with a foreign nation; the U.S. Constitution states that treaties are “the supreme law of the land.” The 1974 federal court decision in U.S. v Washington, also known as the Boldt decision, upheld Indian treaty fishing rights and established the Tribes and state as co-managers of Washington’s salmon population. That’s why Tribes have a say regarding decisions that might adversely affect salmon populations and, thus, treaty rights.
All of that is not widely known among local government officials, many of whom find themselves interacting at some point with a Tribe. State Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, hopes to correct that with his legislation, now law, that requires school districts to incorporate Native culture, history and government in their curriculum. The curriculum and training are provided at no cost by the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Until McCoy’s bill was signed into law, generations of Washington school children — including those now in public office — learned little if anything about the Tribes with whom they now interact.
Poulsbo, meanwhile, got a jump ahead of other cities in Tribal relations.
The city’s relationship with the Suquamish Tribe was initiated in 2004 by Poulsbo City Council member Jim Henry, a Navy retiree who began regularly attending Suquamish events (he’s a member of the Suquamish Warriors veterans group and an honorary Suquamish elder). That led to a dinner meeting between city and Suquamish officials, in which both sides got to know each other and discussed issues of common concern. What followed was a memorandum of understanding, signed by Poulsbo and Suquamish’s elected leaders, “with both governments agreeing to meet regularly and work together on issues of mutual interest,” Katauskas reported. “The ensuing 12-year partnership is widely regarded as one of the longest-lived, and most successful, city-tribal relationships in the state.”
Since then, the city and Suquamish have regularly collaborated on issues ranging from cleaning up the runoff that flows into Liberty Bay (where the Tribe retains fishing rights), to culvert replacement, to improving traffic flow on Highway 305.
Poulsbo and Suquamish officials attend each other’s cultural events. “The cultural part of this is really important,” Forsman told the magazine. “We try to go to each other’s celebrations whenever we can to get a better understanding of each other’s governance.”
Stern and Henry are the city’s representatives to the Suquamish Tribe; Henry and Erickson are regulars at elders luncheons.
“Court rulings say that domestic sovereign nations have a right to review over usual and accustomed lands,” Stern told the magazine. “There isn’t a city in this state that doesn’t have an ongoing relationship with a county. This is no different. Instead of ignoring an interested party that could maybe have veto power over you, get with it. Show up, pay respect, but don’t just show up when you have a problem or a need or a concern. This is the new way of doing business.”