Beyond the Thanksgiving myth

By Micheal Rios, Tulalip News 

“We are all thankful to our Mother, the Earth, for she gives us all that we need for life.” – Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address.


Each November families across the country teach their children about the First Thanksgiving, a classic American holiday. They try to give children an accurate picture of what happened in Plymouth in 1621 and explain how that event fits into American history. Unfortunately, many teaching materials give an incomplete, if not completely inaccurate, portrayal of the first Thanksgiving, particularly of the event’s Native American participants.

Most texts and supplementary materials portray Native Americans at the gatherings as supporting players. They are depicted as nameless, faceless, generic “Indians” who merely shared a meal with the valiant Pilgrims. The real story is much deeper, richer, and more nuanced. The “Indians” in attendance, the Wampanoag, played a lead role in the historic encounter, and they had been vital to the survival of the colonists during the newcomers’ first year.


The Teachers

The Wampanoag were a people with a sophisticated society who had occupied the region for thousands of years. They had their own government, their own spiritual and philosophical beliefs, their own knowledge system, and their own culture. They were also a people for whom giving thanks was a part of daily life.

The Wampanoag people have long lived in the area around Cape Cod, in present-day Massachusetts. When the English decided to establish a colony there in the 1600s, the Wampanoag already had a deep understanding of their environment. They maintained a reciprocal relationship with the world around them. As successful hunters, farmers, and fishermen who shared their foods and techniques, they helped the colonists adapt and survive in “the new world”.

Wherever Europeans set foot in the Western Hemisphere, they encountered Native peoples who had similar longstanding relationships with the natural world. With extensive knowledge of their local environments, Native peoples developed philosophies about those places based on deeply rooted traditions.

The ability to live in harmony with the natural world begins with knowing how nature functions. After many generations of observation and experience, Native peoples were intimately familiar with weather patterns, animal behaviors, and the cycles of plant, water supply, and the seasons. They studied the stars, named constellations, and knew when solstices and equinoxes occurred. This kind of knowledge enabled Native peoples to flourish and to hunt, gather, or cultivate the foods they needed, even in the harshest environments.

Traditionally, Native peoples have always been caretakers in a mutual relationship with their environment. This means respecting nature’s gifts by taking only what is necessary and making good use of everything that is harvested. This helps ensure that natural resources, including foods, will be sustainable for the future. In this way of thinking, the Wampanoag along with every other Native tribe believe people should live in a state of balance within the universe.

Native communities throughout the Americas have numerous practices that connect them to the places where they live. They acknowledge the environment and its gifts of food with many kind of ceremonies, songs, prayers, and dances. Such cultural expressions help people to maintain the reciprocal relationship with the natural world. For example, the Tulalip Tribes of Washington conducts a special ceremony every year called Salmon Ceremony that demonstrates respect for the life-sustaining salmon as a gift. By properly respecting the fish, the Salmon King will continue his benevolence through months of salmon returns.


The Immigrants

A majority of those who came to America on the Mayflower came to make a profit from the products of the land, the rest were religious dissenters who fled their own country to escape religious intolerance. The little band of religious refugees and entrepreneurs that arrived on the Mayflower that December of 1620 was poorly prepared to survive in their new environment. They did not bring enough food, and they arrived too late to plant any crops. They were not familiar with the area and lacked the knowledge, tools, and experience, to effectively utilize the bounty of nature that surrounded them. For the first several months, two or three died each day from scurvy, lack of adequate shelter, and poor nutrition. On one exploration trip, the immigrants found a storage pit and stole the corn that a Wampanoag family had set aside for the next season.

As the starving time of the European’s first winter turned to spring, the Wampanoag began to teach them how to survive within their lands. The summer passed and the newcomers learned to plan and care for native crops, to hunt and fish, and to do all the things necessary to partake of the natural abundance of the earth in this particular place. All of this occurred under the watchful instruction and guidance of the Wampanoag.


A Harvest Celebration

As a result of all the help and teachings the Europeans received from the local Wampanoag, they overcame their inexperience and – by the fall of their first year in Wampanoag country, 1621 – they achieved a successful harvest, mostly comprised of corn. They decided to celebrate their success with a harvest festival, mimicking that of the Harvest Home they would have most likely celebrated as children in Europe.

Harvest Home was traditionally held on the Saturday or Sunday nearest to the Harvest Moon, the full moon that occurs closes to the autumn equinox. It was typically held in parts of England, Ireland, Scotland, and northern Europe. The Harvest Home consisted of non-stop feasting and drinking, sporting events, and parading in the fields shooting off muskets.

The “First Thanksgiving” is said to be based on customs that the Europeans brought with them. Even though from ancient times Native people have held ceremonies to give thanks for successful harvests, for the hope of a good growing season in the early spring, and for good fortune. Traditional Wampanoag foods such as wild duck, goose, and turkey were main dishes of the menu.

Although the relatively peaceful relations first established were often strained by dishonest, aggressive, and brutal actions on the part of the “settlers”, the Wampanoag were gracious hosts to their now immigrant neighbors. Edward Winslow (a European attendant at the celebration) stated in a letter from 1621 that the harvest celebration went on for three days and was highlighted by the Wampanoag killing five deer, thus providing the feast with venison.



In only a matter of years following the harvest celebration that would become known as the “First Thanksgiving”, the rarely achieved, temporary state of coexistence had been torn to shreds. The great migration of European refugees and religious zealots to America that ensued brought persecution and death to the Native tribes. Full-scale war erupted in 1637 and again in 1675, ending with the defeat of the Wampanoag by the English. Though decimated by European diseases and defeated in war, the Wampanoag continued to survive through further colonization in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Today, the Wampanoag live within their ancestral homelands and still sustain themselves as their ancestors did by hunting, fishing, gardening, and gathering. Additionally, they maintain a rich and vital oral history and connection to the land.

Sharing agricultural knowledge was one aspect of early Native efforts to live side by side with Europeans. So, the “First Thanksgiving” was just the beginning of a long, brutal history of interaction between Native peoples and the European immigrants. It was not a single event that can easily be recreated. The meal that is ingrained in the American consciousness represents much more than a simple harvest celebration. It was a turning point in history.



Giving daily thanks for nature’s gifts has always been an important way of living for traditional Native peoples. Ultimately, Native peoples’ connection to place is about more than simply caring for the environment. That connection has been maintained through generations of observations, in which people developed environmental knowledge and philosophies. People took actions to ensure the long-term sustainability of their communities and the environment, with which they shared a reciprocal relationship. In their efforts, environmentalists are acknowledging the benefits of traditionally indigenous ways of knowing. Today, Native knowledge can be a key to understanding and solving some of our world’s most pressing problems.



Did you know?


National Day of Mourning


An annual tradition since 1970, Native Americans have gathered at noon on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday. Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. To them, Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.

The following is an excerpt from a speech given by Moonanum James, Co-Leader of United American Indians of New England, at the 29th National Day of Mourning.

“Some ask us: Will you ever stop protesting? Some day we will stop protesting. We will stop protesting when the merchants of Plymouth are no longer making millions of dollars off the blood of our slaughtered ancestors. We will stop protesting when we can act as sovereign nations on our own land without the interference of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and what Sitting Bull called the “favorite ration chiefs”. When corporations stop polluting our mother, the earth. When racism has been eradicated. When the oppression of Two-Spirited people is a thing of the past. We will stop protesting when homeless people have homes and no child goes to bed hungry. When police brutality no longer exists in communities of color. Until then, the struggle will continue.”




  • American Indian Perspectives on Thanksgiving. National Museum of the American Indian. Retrieved from
  • Harvest Ceremony. Johanna Gorelick and Genevieve Simermeyer, the Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved from
  • National Day of Mourning (United States protest). Retrieved from

For Tulalips, protecting treaty rights means restoring habitat

From a research boat on Oct. 12, Tulalip Tribes treaty rights commissioner Terry Williams points out a steep hillside near Mission Beach that has been gradually eroding for years. (Ian Terry / The Herald)
From a research boat on Oct. 12, Tulalip Tribes treaty rights commissioner Terry Williams points out a steep hillside near Mission Beach that has been gradually eroding for years. (Ian Terry / The Herald)



By Chris Winters, The Herald, Oct 22, 2016


TULALIP — From the deck of a 30-foot research boat owned by the Tulalip Tribes, Terry Williams pointed out the remnants of a bulkhead along Mission Beach where not long ago there was a string of beach houses.

In 2013, the leases on the tribal property weren’t renewed and the homes were removed. The main concern was erosion of the beach and the bluffs overhead damaging the fragile marine environment below.

Williams, who is the Tulalips’ treaty rights commissioner, said increased rainfall and stronger windstorms would saturate the sandy bluffs and cause them to slide down onto the houses below.

“It gets to the consistency of a milkshake and tends to fall,” Williams said.

On a bright fall day, several parts of the bluff showed clear evidence of slides. Houses were visible above.

Coastal landslides tend to silt up the nearshore environment, which is considered a critical piece of the salmon ecosystem.

“Those areas are really important for forage fish for threatened and endangered salmon,” said Joshua Meidav, the Tulalip Tribes’ conservation science program manager.

The beaches were created and rejuvenated over millennia by the gradual erosion of the bluffs. Development along the shore, including bulkheads, docks and clifftop homes, interrupted that natural process.

Now when the bluff slides, it tends to come down all at once, Williams said.

“The reality is that this is all changing,” he said.

An issue of rights 

Climate change is a concern to Williams and the Tulalips in ways that go well beyond the usual worries about flooding and slides. It’s an issue of treaty rights.

While treaty rights are most commonly understood in the context of dividing the salmon harvest, their reach extends beyond the fishing grounds to tribal relationships with local, state and federal governments, said Ray Fryberg Sr., the Tulalips’ Executive Director of Natural Resources.

Most commonly that manifests in cooperative work with federal, state and local governments, and even private landowners, on many kinds of projects designed to restore salmon habitat.

On other occasions, the tribes have sought redress in the federal courts when they felt government wasn’t living up to its obligations.

“We’re like the last vanguard,” Fryberg said. “They have policies and procedures but there’s no enforcement.”

Most recently, that manifested in the “culverts case.”

In 2001, 21 tribes argued successfully that Washington state violated their treaty rights because culverts that carried streams under roads harmed salmon runs.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision in June, and ordered the state Department of Transportation to replace or fix 818 culverts at an estimated cost of $2.4 billion over the next 17 years.

It was a significant advancement of treaty rights into the realm of habitat restoration.

“The culvert case is the case that says there has to be a restoration so that ongoing harm doesn’t continue,” said Robert Anderson, a law professor and the director of the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington.

In this case, the state of Washington was found to have damaged habitat for salmon, and was ordered to make repairs.

Habitat protection and restoration were key elements in the second phase of a landmark decision by U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt.

In 1974, the first phase of the Boldt decision provided the basis for the co-management system, in which tribal and non-tribal fishermen divide the salmon harvest each year. The second phase, decided in 1984, focused on the habitat for the salmon.

“Phase II said that there’s not going to be a treaty resource of the salmon unless the environment is protected,” Fryberg said. “We get a certain amount of say-so in that.”

The part of the Phase II Boldt decision that obligated the federal government to restore habitat was overturned on appeal. However, the federal appeals court still said that the state of Washington and the tribes needed to take steps to protect and enhance the fisheries.

What those steps should be was left unstated.

“It’s difficult to argue that the federal government has an obligation to restore the ecosystem to, say, pre-treaty conditions, or treaty-time conditions,” Anderson said.

Some of the damage to habitat had already been done by that time, he said. Also, it’s a lot harder to assess the damage done by small changes, such as a single tide gate on private land, compared with the cumulative effects of the state’s culvert construction.

Momentum for restoration work can be created, however, when treaty rights are considered in tandem with the Endangered Species Act’s listing of various populations of salmon and steelhead.

“I think there’s a strong argument with the federal government to take steps to restore habitat,” Anderson said. “Maybe not a legal argument, but a treaty trust obligation to do it, and that they should do it.”

A seat at the table 

In practical terms, that means that the tribes have been aggressive in forming partnerships to pursue environmental projects.

Representatives from the Tulalips and the Suquamish Tribes were included in last week’s announcement of a new governmental task force to identify goals to protect Puget Sound.

Tribes also have broad leeway to take on projects of their own that help restore habitat, or at least halt the progress of degradation.

It’s not a blanket authority to do anything anywhere, but it means tribes have a seat at the table whenever a treaty trust resource is affected.

As a coordinating body among the 20 treaty tribes of Western Washington, the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission has a role supporting restoration programs to have a greater impact.

A lot of the commission’s work focuses on the marine nearshore environment, said Fran Wilshusen, the NWIFC’s habitat services director. That also means studying how the marine environment interacts with estuaries, river systems and the upland watersheds.

“We’re trying to pull the lens back and look at how the whole system is connected,” Wilshusen said.

That includes small projects, such as the Tulalips’ 2013 pilot study to release beavers in the western Cascades, where their activity of building dams is expected to help return the upper reaches of streams to their natural state, which happens to be better spawning territory for salmon.

Larger efforts include the Tulalips’ restoration of the 400-acre Qwuloolt Estuary in Marysville. A similar project was restoration of the 762-acre estuary in the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge outside Tacoma by the Nisqually Tribe.

The ongoing Nearshore Restoration Project focuses on restoring beaches and marine environments damaged by beach erosion. It’s a Snohomish County project, and local tribes have a place at the table, serving on the boards of several organizations that provided money for the project, including the county’s Marine Resource Committee and the Northwest Straits Commission.

One project under way is an agreement between the Tulalip Tribes and the U.S. Forest Service to maintain a 1,280-acre tract in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest as a source of wild huckleberries.

There aren’t that many places left in the mountains that are accessible by road that still provide habitat for the berries, which are important to tribal culture, said Libby Halpin Nelson, a senior environmental policy analyst with the Tulalips.

“They are healthy and they are a traditional food that is always looked for in ceremonies,” Nelson said.

The project includes removing small conifers that could “shade-out” the berries. In essence, the tribe is mimicking the effect forest fires used to have before fire suppression became standard response, she said.

Rights at risk 

For all the work that’s been done to protect and restore salmon habitat, the fish runs continue to decline.

In spring, projections of low numbers of returning salmon, especially coho, led to a breakdown of negotiations between the tribes and the state. Tempers flared and fishermen protested when tribes were given permission to catch a small number of spring Chinook while the non-native sportsmen had to wait.

July report from the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission’s “Treaty Rights at Risk” initiative pointed out just how dire the situation was for many watersheds, including the Snohomish and Stillaguamish rivers: Habitat was being lost faster than it could be replaced and nearly every single indicator of the health of salmon populations was trending downward.

The challenges looming on the horizon are even more formidable.

A poster on Fryberg’s office wall has a picture of the late Nisqually leader Billy Frank Jr. and his warning to all Native American tribes: “As the salmon disappear, so do our tribal cultures and treaty rights. We are at a crossroads, and we are running out of time.”

With each new study, it becomes clearer that changes are elapsing at an increasing speed.

“Ten, 15 years ago, what we said would happen in 50 years is already happening,” Fryberg said.

The Tulalip Tribes hosted two summits this year, one in April concerning rising sea levels, and another in September that looked at adapting to climate change in general. Fryberg said the tribe is planning a third focused on the state of salmon recovery.

“Collectively, we have to be making some effort,” Fryberg said. “We have a responsibility to the future to try and do something.”

The quote from Billy Frank was from an essay he wrote in 2012, and it’s the next sentence that points to what needs to be done: “That’s why we are asking the federal government to come to align its agencies and programs, and lead a more coordinated recovery effort.”

Williams’ entire career has been focused on building bridges between tribal, state and federal governments.

Shortly after the Boldt decision, he was involved in setting up the co-management regime in the state, and then negotiating the Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada and its First Nations, backed by research developed by Tulalip staff scientists.

In the 1990s he was tapped to open the Indian Office in the Environmental Protection Agency. But many efforts to restore salmon runs were coming up short.

“We were putting tremendous amount of money into restoration and we were losing ground,” Williams said.

He realized that many federal and state agencies operated in their own silos, and often they might set regulations that aren’t in line with each other or broader goals.

“It’s the authority of each individual agency, federal, state or local, that gives them the ability to create rules and standards,” Williams said. “Eleven agencies have independent programs and authorities in Puget Sound. Most are not geared toward Puget Sound recovery goals.”

At the climate change summit in September, Williams noted the decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies to temporarily halt work on the Dakota Access Pipeline after months of protests at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. He said that was recognition that regulators were out of alignment with the Obama Administration’s agenda.

While a court has allowed some of that work to start up again, the government’s order came with an announcement that the federal government would consult with tribes on major infrastructure projects in the future.

The consultation process already existed since President Obama created a cabinet-level position to coordinate government-tribal relations, Anderson said.

“Here the Obama Administration seems to be signaling that, ‘Hey, maybe we ought to be doing more,’” he said.

That may lead simply to more federal agencies talking to each other and more often with tribal governments, which is still a step forward.

From the Tulalip research boat, Williams pointed out a section of Hermosa Point where he’s lived since the 1970s. Here too, the bluffs have slid, and some of the houses are perched on the edge, hanging over the lip.

“When I bought my house we were looking at getting closer to the bluff, but decided that wasn’t a good idea,” he said.

If stronger regulations are enacted, it would prevent some houses from being built, and that would translate into lower insurance costs for government. That would also help protect fragile ecosystems.

“The more we can understand it, the better we can prepare,” Williams said.

“What we’re seeing in climate impacts right now is just the beginning.”


An eroding hillside near Hermosa Point on the Tulalip Reservation. (Ian Terry / The Herald)
An eroding hillside near Hermosa Point on the Tulalip Reservation. (Ian Terry / The Herald)


Evidence of a recent slide along a hillside near Arcadia Road on the Tulalip Reservation on Oct. 12. (Ian Terry / The Herald)
Evidence of a recent slide along a hillside near Arcadia Road on the Tulalip Reservation on Oct. 12. (Ian Terry / The Herald)


Fishermen in Tulalip Bay with the Olympic Mountains looming in the background. (Ian Terry / The Herald)
Fishermen in Tulalip Bay with the Olympic Mountains looming in the background. (Ian Terry / The Herald)


Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

Healthy Hearts, Healthy Minds

By Micheal Rios, Tulalip News 

Amongst Native peoples, few things in life are as scary as diabetes. And then, after being clinically diagnosed with diabetes, a person must take many steps to resume a normal life, and in most cases, a more healthy lifestyle. What can be just as surprising as the diabetes itself are the unexpected, nonphysical effects, which are equally threatening to one’s quality of life. Although these effects might make the road to diabetes management somewhat bumpy, experts from the Healthy Hearts team from the University of Washington’s Indigenous Wellness Research Institute are demonstrating that life with diabetes not only goes on, but can get better.

The Healthy Hearts team has been working to understand and address cardiovascular disease in the Tulalip community since 2008. The first study, Healthy Hearts Across Generations, collected surveys from 284 randomly selected participants from the Tulalip tribal membership to examine cardiovascular disease risks and look at what coping strategies were most productive. From 2010 to 2012, Healthy Hearts Across Generations also provided 135 community parents and guardians with culturally influenced classes to promote health in their families.

In 2012, planning began for the second Healthy Hearts study called Healthy Hearts, Healthy Minds. This was launched in 2013 for Natives in the Tulalip area whose diabetes/prediabetes put them at greater risk for heart disease. Healthy Hearts, Healthy Minds provided those who were eligible and wanted to participate with one-on-one wellness counseling to take control of their diabetes self-care. This study came to a close in late February.

Local community resources and input from tribal members were used to develop study materials and programs, which were culturally-adapted and designed to promote sticking with positive, healthy behaviors even when it can be tough in the face of busy schedules and other challenges.

Just as exercise strengthens the mind as well as the body, awareness and education play an important role in nonphysical healing. Optimal diabetes management is more likely when people understand the nature and persistence of diabetes, and the fact that it is treatable. It’s more than just sharing facts; people also must be taught how to return to healthier lifestyles and avoid the habits that likely contributed to their health issues in the first place. This is yet another way in which wellness counselors are beneficial, providing an evidence-based intervention strategy to help participants succeed with diabetes management.

“Our focus was the wellness mental state. With diabetes, one of the challenges is that you are asked to do so many things to take care of it yourself. You have to change how you eat, you have to exercise, and check your blood sugar, you have to take your medicine, and don’t forget about getting your eyes and feet checked. It becomes very overwhelming for people,” says Rachelle McCarty, Project Manager of Healthy Hearts, Healthy Minds. “If you are really stressed out, then it’s hard to take care of yourself. That’s where our program aimed to help out. We provided participants with one-on-one coaching and very useful tools and information, so they could minimize their stress level to better manage their diabetes.”

Participants were asked to meet with a wellness coach for 10 sessions over a three-month period. Throughout the sessions, participants worked with their wellness coach to identify individual goals they wished to focus on regarding their pre-diabetes or diabetes and stress. They also worked with their coach to complete the Healthy Hearts, Healthy Minds curriculums, which covered a range of topics and skills like problem-solving, adherence, motivation and relaxation training.

Wellness coach Michelle Tiedeman, who has been with Healthy Hearts since 2009, says “What I enjoyed the most was working one-on-one with individuals and seeing them make one small, positive change at a time that added up to better overall wellness. It has been an honor to work with the Tulalip community the past several years. I have had the pleasure to work with some amazing individuals and see them accomplish great things.”

Healthy Hearts sponsored an informational lunch to share results from Healthy Hearts Across Generations in August 2014, and hosted a community celebration on February 2, 2016 to honor Tulalip’s commitment to health and share results from Healthy Hearts, Healthy Minds. You may have also seen them giving out results flyers and booklets at public events, health fairs, and the semi-annual General Council meeting last year.


Here is a sample of some of the findings:

  • 42% of tribal members who responded to the health survey said they do participate in traditional activities like culture night, canoe journey, salmon ceremony, talking circles, and others.
  • 40% of tribal members who responded to the health survey reported that they had high blood pressure, 50% of the men and 32% of the women.
  • 27% of parents reported that they often use their own behavior as an example to encourage their child(ren) to be physically active.
  • 77% shared that they have one or more blood (biological) relatives with diabetes.
  • Those who enrolled in Healthy Hearts, Healthy Minds significantly lowered their depressive symptoms.
  • Healthy Heart, Healthy Minds participants rated themselves significantly better at sticking with their goals at the end of the program compared to the beginning.
  • 70% agreed with the statement, “I have a responsibility to walk in a good way for future generations.”


For help with your diabetes, contact the Diabetes Care and Preventions Program at 360-716-5642. For more information on the projects or results available to date, email the Healthy Hearts, Healthy Minds study at The projects were funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, and the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.


Contact Micheal Rios,


Tulalip feels the Bern

Photo/ Nicole Willis


By Micheal Rios, Tulalip News; photos courtesy Nicole Willis

Native Americans are the first Americans, yet they have for far too long been treated as third class citizens.  It is unconscionable that today, in 2016, Native Americans still do not always have the right to decide on important issues that affect their communities.  The United States must not just honor Native American treaty rights and tribal sovereignty, it must also move away from a relationship of paternalism and control and toward one of deference and support.  The United States has a duty to ensure equal opportunities and justice for all of its citizens, including the 2.5 million Native Americans that share this land.  It is no secret that this isn’t the case today.*

“Time and time again, our Native American brothers and sisters have seen the federal government break solemn promises, and huge corporations put profits ahead of the sovereign rights of Native communities.  As President, I will stand with Native Americans in the struggle to protect their treaty and sovereign rights, advance traditional ways of life, and improve the quality of life for Native communities,” states Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

Sanders has repeatedly acknowledged the need to correct the U.S. history books and openly apologized for the wrongs done to Native people. It’s easy to understand why Natives from all across Indian Country are choosing to ‘feel the Bern’ and rally behind a candidate who honors us in such an honest and sincere manner.

Sanders continues to gain support and more momentum towards his bid for the White House, evident in his holding the largest political rally Seattle has seen since Obama in 2008. An estimated 18,000 people showed up at KeyArena on Sunday, March 20 to show their support for the Vermont senator.

Amongst his horde of supporters were many respected leaders and representatives of Coast Salish tribes, including Tulalip’s own Chairman Mel Sheldon and recently re-elected Board of Directors Theresa Sheldon and Bonnie Juneau.

“For the first time in my life a U.S. Presidential candidate spoke on Native American issues during his national platform. Elevating tribes to the national platform is a big deal,” says Theresa Sheldon. “It’s so important for tribes to be engaged and visible during this Presidential election. Our relationship is with the federal government, therefore we need to be present and participate in the civic process.”


Photo/Nicole Willis
Photo/Nicole Willis


During the rally, five Tulalip tribal members (Theresa, Bonnie, Deborah Parker, Monie Ordania and Justice Napeahi) took center stage to perform the Women’s Warrior song.

“We are thankful the creator gave us an opportunity to sing the Women’s Warrior song from our First Nations relatives at the Bernie Sanders rally,” adds Theresa. “The Women’s Warrior song honors and acknowledges the missing and murdered indigenous women who have been taken from us way before their time.”

In a more private setting, Sanders met with a tribal delegation including NCAI President Brian Cladoosby, VAWA champion Deborah Parker and Yakama leaders including Asa Washines.

It was during this setting that the Coast Salish leaders honored Bernie Sanders with a Lushootseed name.

“Native American leaders named Bernie Sanders ‘δΞσηυδιϖυp’ (pronounced dooh-s-who-dee-choop),” Deborah wrote on Facebook. “This name is now bestowed upon Bernie Sanders and will be known among the Coast Salish people and beyond. The Lushootseed language meaning is ‘the one lighting the fires for change and unity.’ Thanking our Tulalip language teacher Natosha Gobin for helping us with Bernie Sanders Lushootseed name.”




According to Theresa, Sanders’ rally was historical for many reasons. Sanders has not only been a huge supporter of native issues, but he continues to stand shoulder to shoulder with tribes on such important issues as Violence Against Women and Oak Flats. He is an absolute protector of Mother Earth and he gives tribes total credit for the conservation and protection of the Earth that we do. If push comes to shove and the U.S. President has to make the call to either support treaty rights or to support corporate America and Army Corp of Engineers in the permit to build the coal terminal at Cherry Point, then you can guarantee that Sanders will go with treaty rights and support the tribes.

This is a huge shift that is happening nationally. Tribes are finally elevating themselves to the appropriate level, forcing mainstream media and corporate America to pay attention to us. When we are seen and heard by candidates, we can and will make a difference.



Strengthening our community: Red Curtain Arts Center hosts Tulalip culture night


Red Curtain2

by Micheal Rios, Tulalip News

On Friday, October 23, the Red Curtain Foundation for the Arts, in partnership with the Tulalip Tribes’ Lushootseed Language Department, hosted a free cultural event from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Tulalip tribal member and Lushootseed teacher, Maria Martin, shared the legend of “Her First Basket” in Lushootseed and English, accompanied by tribal illustrations and artwork.

Scott Randall, president of the Red Curtain Foundation for the Arts in Marysville, first approached Maria at the annual Raising Hands event in 2014 with his idea for bringing the Marysville and Tulalip communities together with a culture night.

“We, Scott and I, thought it would be beneficial to everyone in the Marysville and Tulalip communities. There is a separation between the two and we wanted to break down that wall,” stated Maria. “We know we can be a strong community, but there is so much unknown about one another. This event is just one way for our communities to come together and grow.

“We plan on having a story and activity once a month. It is a free event, with donations if you feel up to it. We just want to break down those walls of curiosity. I’m sure that there are many Natives/ Tulalip community members that have encountered some sort of silly question about Native Americans and how we live. This is a way to educate outsiders, to understand one another.”

Maria chose to share her favorite Lushootseed story “Her First Basket”, a core story in the Lushootseed Department’s values book, and pass along the significant meaning it holds to both her and her people.


Red Curtain


“It’s a story about not giving up and there is a bit of community unity within it as well,” explains Maria. “A Cedar tree helps this little girl to see her potential and she gains friends for it. Bringing people together and seeing their potential, it’s something every teacher strives for.”

Marysville and Tulalip community members were invited to partake in the evening of culture. Each table within the auditorium had at its center a “Her First Basket” picture book, so that children and adults could follow along as Maria first told the story in her traditional language, Lushootseed.

Following the storytelling sessions, the audience members were taught some basic weaving skills, using paper and yarn as substitutes for traditional cedar strips, to create their own basket and memento from the evening.

“After telling the story in Lushootseed and in English, we worked on making paper and yarn baskets. For many it was their first basket. It was a fun experience, and people’s talents are so amazing,” says Maria. “I hope to see more community members from both the Marysville and Tulalip communities at future events. We are all related, we live right next to one another, and our care for our neighbors is so important. It was so nice to see the people that showed up; the outcome of their basket making was beautiful. Accomplishing something you haven’t done before is such a great feeling, and meeting new people with the new experience is a beautiful thing too. There are so many people out there that we can all learn something from.”


 Contact Micheal Rios,

Seattle Continues Healing ‘Deep Wounds’ With Boarding School Resolution

Museum of History & Industry, Seattle; All Rights ReservedStarting in the middle of the 19th century, church groups and the U.S. government set up boarding schools for Natives. Here, children from many tribes were taught how to speak English and how to make a living. They were separated from their elders, and were discouraged from learning tribal traditions and language. This photo by U.P. Hadley shows the buildings and students at the Industrial Boarding School on the Puyallup Reservation between 1880 and 1889. The school opened in 1860. During the 1880s, a number of new buildings were added, and the school grew from 125 to about 200 students.
Museum of History & Industry, Seattle; All Rights Reserved
Starting in the middle of the 19th century, church groups and the U.S. government set up boarding schools for Natives. Here, children from many tribes were taught how to speak English and how to make a living. They were separated from their elders, and were discouraged from learning tribal traditions and language. This photo by U.P. Hadley shows the buildings and students at the Industrial Boarding School on the Puyallup Reservation between 1880 and 1889. The school opened in 1860. During the 1880s, a number of new buildings were added, and the school grew from 125 to about 200 students.


By Richard Walker, Indian Country Today, 10/20/15


“If it be admitted that education affords the true solution to the Indian problem, then it must be admitted that the boarding school is the very key to the situation,” Indian School Superintendent John B. Riley wrote in an 1886 reportto the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

“Only by complete isolation of the Indian child from his savage antecedents can he be satisfactorily educated.”

Such was the prevailing attitude of Indian Affairs agents during the federal boarding-school era: That America’s First Peoples were a problem to be dealt with, that America’s Manifest Destiny required Indigenous Peoples to be remolded and assimilated into the mainstream—even if it meant forcibly removing children from their families.

It wasn’t until 1978—118 years after the establishment of the first American Indian boarding school—that Native American parents gained the legal right, with the passing of the Indian Child Welfare Act, to deny their children’s placement in off-reservation schools.

“Some Native American parents saw boarding school education for what it was intended to be—the total destruction of Indian culture,” the American Indian Relief Council reported on its website. “Resentment of the boarding schools was most severe because the schools broke the most sacred and fundamental of all human ties, the parent-child bond.”

On October 12, council members in one of the largest cities in the U.S. took a step toward helping to heal the wounds from the boarding school era.

The City Council of Seattle, Washington, approved a resolution“acknowledging the various harms and ongoing historical and inter-generational traumas impacting American Indian, First Nations, and Alaskan Natives for the forcible removal of Indian children and subsequent abuse and neglect resulting from the United States’ American Indian Boarding School Policy during the 19th and 20th Centuries …”

The resolution calls on the United States to examine its human rights record and to work with American Indian and Alaskan Native peoples “in efforts of reconciliation in addressing the impacts of historical trauma, language and cultural loss, and alleged genocide.”

“The supposed goal [of the boarding schools] was to ‘Kill the Indian, save the man,’ which is tantamount to cultural genocide,” Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant told “The resolution will give city officials the opportunity to acknowledge and help heal the deep wounds opened up by the boarding school policy. It is also another step toward getting the city to take real action to address the poverty, oppression, and marginalization that the community faces to this day.”

The resolution was drafted by Matt Remle, Lakota, with support from Seattle lawyer Gabe Galanda, Round Valley Indian Tribes; Seattle Arts Commissioner Tracy Rector, Seminole; the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition; the Native American Rights Fund, and other members of Seattle’s Native community. The resolution was sponsored legislatively by Sawant.

The resolution vote took place on Seattle’s second annual Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The day included a rally and march to Seattle City Hall, drumming and songs, a keynote address by Winona LaDuke, Ojibwe, and a celebration at Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center.

During the boarding school era, “roughly 100,000 American Indian children ages 5-18 were stripped from their homes and placed in remote boarding schools,” Remle wrote on “Native languages, spirituality and customs were outlawed, physical and sexual violence was rampant.”

It’s a subject known all too well by the First Peoples of the Seattle area. Seattle, named for the mid-1800s leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish peoples, is the largest city in a state with 29 federally recognized Native nations. The first American Indian boarding school in the United States was established at the Yakama Nation in eastern Washington in 1860; the Tulalip Mission School, operated by the Catholic Church, was established three years earlier and was the first contract school for Native American children.

In her book, Tulalip, From My Heart, Harriette Shelton Dover (1904-1991) wrote of harsh discipline, poor diet and inadequate care, of tuberculosis and pneumonia and childhood deaths.

RELATED: From the Heart: Tulalip History and Memoir Is a Walk Back in Time

Helma Ward, Makah, told Carolyn J. Marr, an anthropologist and photographs librarian at the Museum of History and Industryin Seattle, “Two of our girls ran away … but they got caught. They tied their legs up, tied their hands behind their backs, put them in the middle of the hallway so that if they fell, fell asleep or something, the matron would hear them and she’d get out there and whip them and make them stand up again.”

“They were not allowed to speak their language there,” Inez Bill, Tulalip, told KING 5 News, Seattle, of her grandparents’ boarding school experience. “When you lose your language, you lose your culture. It left our people scarred.”

Fast forward to today: The children and grandchildren of those who were forced to attend boarding schools and were banned from speaking their languages have taken control of their own children’s education, are showing that their culture has an important role in education and that it can build bridges of understanding in communities.

Almost 65,000 students in Washington identify as Native American or Alaskan Native, according to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. OSPI’s Office of Native Education was created in the mid-1960s to help Native students achieve their education goals and meet state standards. The office provides resources and training to help educators and families meet the needs of Native students, builds curriculum in Native languages and about Native culture and history, and works to increase the number of Native educators.

Eight Native nations operate their own schools in Washington, according to the state Superintendent of Public Instruction. School districts near reservations have liaisons to the Native American community and/or partnerships with a local Native nation’s education department. Earlier this year, the state legislature mandated the inclusion of Native American history, culture and governance in the curriculum of local public schools.

During its heyday, the American Indian Heritage Early College High School in Seattle had a 100 percent graduation rate, and all graduates went on to college. The Urban Native Education Alliance is lobbying to have the school reestablished in the new Robert Eagle Staff Middle School, named for the late principal of Indian Heritage and under construction at the site of the former school.

The Suquamish Tribe operates and funds Chief Kitsap Academy, a high-tech, culturally based high school that is part of the Early College High School network. According to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, only four of 10 of North Kitsap School District schools and programs met Adequate Yearly Progress goals in reading and math proficiency in 2014—one of those was Chief Kitsap Academy. Students use the latest technology, but are also exposed to cultural teachings and study the Lushootseed language. The school is open to Native and non-Native students.

Northwest Indian Collegehas grown from a school of aquaculture to a four-year college with six satellite campuses in two states. It offers four undergraduate degrees, nine associate’s degrees, three certificate programs, and five other study programs. The University of Washingtonand The Evergreen State Collegehave longhouses that serve as places of gathering and sharing as well as teaching.


A totem at Northwest Indian College in Bellingham, Washington. (Google Plus/NWIC)
A totem at Northwest Indian College in Bellingham, Washington. (Google Plus/NWIC)


Eaonhawinon Patricia Allen, a University of Washington graduate and community organizer in Seattle, spoke at Seattle City Hall before the City Council’s vote. She later wrote on LastRealIndians.comthat the boarding school era “was one of the last actions made to complete colonization and … to wash the Native identity out of Natives. But I am here to tell you this, and so will my future children: We still survived and are starting the process of healing.”

Canada established a Truth and Reconciliation Commissionto prepare a complete historical record on the policies and operations of residential schools; complete a public report, including recommendations to the parties of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement; and establish a national research center that will be a lasting resource about the Indian Residential Schools legacy in Canada. The commission is reaching out to the public in national and community events, and honoring residential schools survivors in a lasting manner. It is also examining the number and cause of deaths, illnesses, and disappearances of children, and documenting the location of burial sites.



Native Lives Matter, Too

Arianna Vairo
Arianna Vairo

By Lydia Millet, NY Times, Opinion Pages

IN August 2010 John T. Williams, a homeless woodcarver of the Nuu-chah-nulth tribe who made his living selling his work near the Pike Place market in Seattle, was shot four times by a police officer within seconds of failing to drop the knife and piece of cedar he was carrying (Mr. Williams had mental health problems and was deaf in one ear). He died; the folding knife was found closed on the ground. The young police officer who shot Mr. Williams resigned, but he never faced criminal charges, even though the Seattle Police Department’s Firearms Review Board called the shooting unjustified. 

In South Dakota in 2013, a police officer used his Taser to shock an 8-year-old, 70-pound Rosebud Sioux girl holding a knife; the force of the shock hurled her against a wall. After an investigation, the officer’s actions were deemed appropriate.

That same year 18-year-old Mah-hi-vist (Red Bird) Goodblanket of the Cheyenne-Arapaho tribes was killed by the police in his parents’ home in Oklahoma just before Christmas. They’d called 911 because their son was having a violent episode after a misunderstanding with his girlfriend. Before the police entered their home Red Bird’s father begged them, “Please, don’t shoot my son.” A few minutes later, the parents would count seven bullet holes in their son’s body — one in the back of his head. The exact narrative of the incident, which fittingly took place in Custer County, is in dispute.

In November 2014, also in Oklahoma, Christina Tahhahwah of the Comanche tribe died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody. Fellow inmates claim that jail guards shocked her with a Taser for refusing to stop singing Comanche hymns.

In December 2014, one day after attending a #NativeLivesMatter rally against police violence, Allen Locke, a 30-year-old Lakota man, was shot dead by the police in South Dakota. Mr. Locke had been holding a steak knife at the time he was hit by up to five bullets; the shooting was deemed justified a month later.

Most recently, in July, a 24-year-old Lakota mother of two named Sarah Lee Circle Bear died in a South Dakota jail of a methamphetamine overdose. Her death, which involved a two-hour time lapse between the first signs of physical distress and her transport to a hospital, got almost no national media attention.

All the victims were Native Americans, and they’re just a small sample of a systemic problem. American Indians are more likely than any other racial group to be killed by the police, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, which studied police killings from 1999 to 2011 (the rate was determined as a percentage of total population). But apart from media outlets like Indian Country Today, almost no attention is paid to this pattern of violence against already devastated peoples.

When it comes to American Indians, mainstream America suffers from willful blindness. Of all the episodes of police violence listed above, only the killings of Mr. Williams and Mr. Goodblanket received significant news coverage outside Indian circles, the latter only in an article for by the Oglala Lakota journalist and activist Simon Moya-Smith. The Williams shooting, which was the subject of public outcry, was covered by a major local news site, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, as well as by The New York Times.

One reason for Indian invisibility in the media may be low numbers; Native Americans and Alaska Natives in the country now total about three million, or 5.2 million if you include mixed-race individuals, compared with about 45 million African-Americans. Perhaps equally important, their population densities off the reservation tend to be low. They have a small urban presence; New York, with about 112,000, and Los Angeles, with about 54,000, rank first and second among cities with American Indian populations. Phoenix, Oklahoma City and Anchorage come next. About one-fifth of American Indians still live on reservations.

Economic and health statistics, as well as police-violence statistics, shed light on the pressures on American Indian communities and individuals: Indian youths have the highest suicide rate of any United States ethnic group. Adolescent women have suicide rates four times the rate of white women in the same age group. Indians suffer from an infant mortality rate 60 percent higher than that of Caucasians, a 50 percent higher AIDS rate, and a rate of accidental death (including car crashes) more than twice that of the general population.

At the root of much of this is economic inequality: Indians are the poorest people in the United States, with a poverty rate in 2013 that was about twice the national average at 29.2 percent — meaning almost one in three Indians lives in poverty. So it doesn’t come as a complete shock that members of these disadvantaged communities encounter law enforcement more often than, say, middle-class whites. But the rate at which native people die as a result of those encounters is nonetheless deeply disturbing: Though “single-race” Indians make up slightly less than 1 percent of the population, they account for nearly 2 percent of police killings.

There are many complexities surrounding Native American interaction with the dominant culture, whose Declaration of Independence refers to them as “merciless Indian Savages” and whose history of mass killings has taken a staggering social toll. But the fact is that today’s avoidable tragedies of oppressed Indian lives and troubled deaths remain far too often in the shadows.

At this moment, when black Americans are speaking up against systemic police violence, and their message is finally being carried by virtually every major news source, it’s time we also pay attention to a less visible but similarly targeted minority: the people who lived here for many thousands of years before this country was founded, and who also have an unalienable right to respect and justice.

#WeNeedYouHere: Native youth working to change the way teens deal with suicide

Tulalip tribal member Jo-E-Dee is one of three We R Native youth ambassadors reaching out to young Natives by promoting World Suicide Prevention Month in a YouTube video featuring Native youth who are survivors of suicide or suicide attempts. Their message: #WeNeedYouHere.Photo/Micheal Rios
Tulalip tribal member Jo-E-Dee is one of three We R Native youth ambassadors reaching out to young Natives by promoting World Suicide Prevention Month in a YouTube video featuring Native youth who are survivors of suicide or suicide attempts. Their message: #WeNeedYouHere.
Photo/Micheal Rios, Tulalip News


by Micheal Rios, Tulalip News 

When it comes to suicide prevention, every day matters. In honor of World Suicide Prevention Month (September), the Tulalip Tribes thank those that work in our community and take action every day to bring suicide prevention services and awareness practices to our tight-knit community.

World Suicide Prevention Day, which first started in 2003, is recognized annually on September 10 and aims to:

  • Raise awareness that suicide is preventable
  • Improve education about suicide
  • Spread information about suicide awareness
  • Decrease stigmatization regarding suicide

Tulalip tribal member Jo-E-Dee Fryberg is only 17 years-old, yet she has found a passion for helping her people. She has focused on suicide prevention by helping youth in her Tulalip community and other communities succeed by finding hope where hope doesn’t seem to exist.

Jo-E-Dee is one of three We R Native youth ambassadors reaching out to young Natives by promoting World Suicide Prevention Month in a YouTube video featuring Native youth who are survivors of suicide or suicide attempts. Their message: #WeNeedYouHere.

“We’ve been losing a lot of kids to suicide. It’s something that never stops. But I’m hoping that with this generation we can finally stand up, talk to someone, and seek help for what we’re feeling, instead of letting this cycle of youth suicide continue,” says Jo-E-Dee. “The #WeNeedYouHere message, it speaks to people my age and from communities like mine.”

We R Native is a multimedia health resource for Native teens and young adults run by the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board. They are a comprehensive health resource for Native youth, by Native youth, providing content and stories about the topics that matter most to them. We R Native strives to promote holistic health and positive growth in our local communities and nation at large.

Native youth ambassadors from across the nation began spreading the message for suicide prevention and awareness over the summer, “helping to spread positive vibes and create positive change in their local communities,” We R Native said in a press release.

Creating awareness that suicide can be prevented is their first project. To increase the visibility of their campaign they created the hashtag #WeNeedYouHere, and individually they are speaking out.

Suicide has personally affected ambassador Jo-E-Dee. She shares how her involvement in canoe journeys and pow-wows helped her cope with her brother’s death, and how she feels personally invested in spreading the #WeNeedYouHere message.

“My brother [Clinton “Crazy Wolf” Fryberg] committed suicide in 2010. His death changed me forever. I became suicidal and didn’t know how to deal with those thoughts and feelings. I didn’t know how to talk about it,” recalls Jo-E-Dee. “Those of us who struggle with suicidal thoughts and feelings, we don’t really understand what it is we’re going through. I went to treatment, and through therapy learned how to talk about what I was feeling. I learned why I was feeling suicidal and how to find my way back to living a good life.”

This challenge of suicide prevention hits home for a lot of us. Suicide is a very tough issue, but addressing the tough issues and speaking openly to let our people know that we care is crucial to the healing process.

“Here’s some things I can do if I’m having suicidal thoughts: call someone and flat out tell them ‘I’m feeling suicidal and I’m scared. I don’t know what to do’,” says Joe-E-Dee. “Going to church and staying invested in our cultural activities warms our hearts, you know, like you feel happy when go and it makes you want to keep on going back and doing what you are doing. I felt hopeless before, and if you feel hopeless this is what you need to know: there’s always room for something new and it’s never too late to start something good.”

If you need help, or to give help, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text START to 741741 to chat via text.




According to the World Health Organization, nearly 3,000 people on average commit suicide daily. About one million people die by suicide each year. Suicide rates are at an all-time high for U.S. military veterans. In addition, for every person who commits suicide, 20 or more others attempt to end their lives. What’s obvious from the World Health Organization statistics is that suicide does not discriminate upon race, age, or gender. It is a social issue that plagues everyone, whether directly or indirectly.

The effects of suicide are not limited to those who die. Suicide is a serious public health problem that has shattered the lives of millions of people, families, and communities nationwide. We can all take action to reduce its toll. A variety of strategies are available for individuals and organizations across the United States to help prevent suicide.

On the local, tribal level the Tulalip Tribes have been hard at work on a Suicide Prevention Plan that aims to stop Tribal member suicides, based on the belief that suicide is preventable in our community.

Although suicides occur everywhere in the world, Native Americans are disproportionately affected by suicide and the lasting impact it has on our tight-knit communities. In Tulalip, we recognize the role that historical trauma plays in the mental health of our people. The events of history cannot be changed and the effects of trauma now exist in our bodies and the struggle for healthy coping skills and mental resiliency is a challenge. This plan is vital in our journey to healing; we know that every life is important and we are dedicated to educating our people and preventing unnecessary death.

Tulalip community members who are interested in receiving assistance with mental wellness should call the Family Services main number to schedule an intake for individual or family counseling: 360-716-4400 (18 and over) or 360-716-3284 (under 18).



Warning signs of suicidal behavior

Everyone can play a role in preventing suicide by being aware of the warning signs of suicidal behaviors:

  • Talking about wanting to die; feeling hopeless, trapped, or in unbearable pain; being a burden to others.
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself.
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.
  • Acting anxious, agitated, or reckless.
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated.
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.
  • Displaying extreme mood swings.

What you can do

If you believe someone is at risk of suicide:

  • Ask them if they are thinking about killing themselves. (This will not put the idea into their heads, or make it more likely that they will attempt suicide.)
  • Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifelines at 800-273-TALK (8255).
  • Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.
  • If possible, do not leave the person alone.



Contact Micheal Rios,

Tribes scramble to avoid $1 million in fines under Affordable Care Act

Diabetes patient Jay Littlewolf says he sought medical help for a diabetic ulcer at a Billings hospital after not receiving "adequate health care through the IHS in Lame Deer." He wants reimbursement from the IHS and sought Sen. Jon Tester's assistance.Photo/Larry Mayer, Gazette staff
Diabetes patient Jay Littlewolf says he sought medical help for a diabetic ulcer at a Billings hospital after not receiving “adequate health care through the IHS in Lame Deer.” He wants reimbursement from the IHS and sought Sen. Jon Tester’s assistance.
Photo/Larry Mayer, Gazette staff

By Tom Lutey, The Missoulian

BILLINGS – Montana’s Indian tribes, which until recently thought the Affordable Care Act would pass them by, could face fines exceeding $1 million for not offering insurance to employees.

Beginning in 2016, businesses with 50 or more full-time workers will have to offer at least a minimum amount of health insurance to employees. Those who don’t comply face tax penalties, and that includes tribal governments.

The requirement has been a surprise to tribes, said George Heavy Runner, Blackfeet Insurance Services health and wellness coordinator. As individuals, American Indians have the option of choosing not to follow Affordable Care Act rules. Many assumed tribal governments, which are sovereign, had that same option.

“We thought this was a ship kind of passing us by,” Heavy Runner said. “But it’s not just a ship passing through the night. We have been identified in this legislation, just not where we thought we would be.”

Tax penalties facing the Blackfeet Tribe for not complying could be as high as $1.1 million. Crow Tribal Chairman Darrin Old Coyote said the size of the fee depends on how many people a tribal government employs.

“If we don’t do the mandate, we’re going to be fined for the number of employees we have, and that number could be up to $1.5 million,” Old Coyote said. “We pay federal tax, and our employees pay federal tax and so we’re part of the large employer mandate.”

The tribes can avoid the fees by offering the insurance to their workers. Old Coyote said the Crow have hired a benefits manager to do just that.


The change caught tribes off-guard because American Indians by treaty receive health care via the Indian Health Service on reservations. IHS is much maligned by tribal members for not providing adequate health care and for not covering services by specialists outside the IHS program.

Because IHS is limited, tribal members who work for their government would benefit from having other health care, Old Coyote said. The challenge is having a health care plan to offer by next year.

Suing to get off the employer mandate has already been tried. In February, Wyoming’s Northern Arapaho Tribe failed to convince a federal judge to block the employer mandate. The Northern Arapaho argued that subjecting tribes to the employer mandate was an oversight that overlooked treaty rights related to Indian health care, while also stating that tax credits and benefits granted to Indians under the Affordable Care Act would be denied.

Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., announced a bill to exempt tribes from the employer mandate. Daines called the mandate a job killer for tribal governments, who wouldn’t hire as many employees if they had to pay significant penalties.

Other sponsors of the bill, such as Republican Sen. John Thune, of South Dakota, said it was unfair to exempt individual tribal members and not exempt tribal governments as well.

However, exempting tribes from the employer mandate won’t help the nagging problems with Indian health care, said a representative for Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

“This bill does nothing to solve the underlying problem, which is crisis-level health disparities among Native Americans,” said Marnee Banks. “If we are serious about increasing access to quality health care in Indian Country, we will expand Medicaid and adequately fund the Indian Health Service.”


IHS spending on Indian patients was $2,741 per person in 2013, according to the National Congress of American Indians, which asserts that IHS is severely underfunded. Medicaid spending, by comparison was $5,841.

The state of Montana is awaiting federal approval of the state’s plan to begin offering Medicaid to Montanans earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

Medicaid expansion would extend benefits to as many as 11,000 tribal members over the next four years, said Jon Ebelt of Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services. The program would benefit tribal health care in general, Ebelt said.

“Medicaid expansion revenue will be critical for building health infrastructure, expanding the workforce, and keeping health care providers in tribal communities,” Ebelt said. “Medicaid revenues will bring new funds to the programs and further investment in the Indian health system infrastructure and workforce. This is an opportunity to provide more health care services, create more jobs and employ more Native Americans in tribal communities.”

Old Coyote said he’s concerned that state benefits representatives won’t be able to clearly explain the expanded Medicaid program to some Crow Indians who speak Crow as their primary language. He’s asked the state to provide a benefits representative who is fluent in Crow.

Ebelt said the state is able to provide translation assistance if necessary and in determining an outreach plan with members of the Indian Health Service at Crow Agency.

Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act moves forward after markup session

capitol hill, congress

By Kim Morrison, World Casino News

H.R.511 gains momentum as members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce attend the July 22, 2015 markup session which was packed with members of the National Indian Gaming Association in Washington, D.C., for a legislative summit.

The Act which exempts tribes and their casinos from the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act was passed on Wednesday at the short markup session on Capitol Hill.

According to the Chairman of the Committee, Rep. John Kline (R-Minnesota) who introduced the bill, “it’s not about big business versus big labor and it’s not about Republican versus Democrat.”

Kline went on to add that “the bill we are considering today is about whether Native Americans should be free to govern employee-employer relations in a way they determine is best for their workplace.”

In what Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Indiana) described as a “bipartisan, commonsense proposal that will provide legal certainty to the Native American community,” the Act would exempt tribes and their casinos from the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), and prohibit the National Labor Relations Board from asserting jurisdiction at those businesses.

Rokita also went on to state that the Act would give authority back to tribal leaders and end the National Labor Review Board’s (NLRB) overreach, and restore the standard that was in place long before the National Labor Relations Board made the misguided decision to change course. An amendment in the nature of a substitute to clarify that tribal governments are also exempt from the NLRA, was offered by Rokita.

Opposition to the Sovereignty Act was voiced by the only Democrats present, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisconsin), Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Connecticut) and Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (D-Texas), who accused Republicans and their allies of using tribal sovereignty as a smokescreen to attack the NLRB.

Representative Pocan accused proponents of the bill, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, of endorsing the bill in an attempt to help destroy the NLRB rather than support for the sovereignty of the tribes.

The three also noted that most employees of tribal casinos are non-Indians and argued that the bill will degrade labor standards Indian Country.

Although it hasn’t been taken up by the full Senate, on June 10th the Senate Indian Affairs Committee approved S.248, its version of the bill which is gaining traction among lawmakers from both parties.

At that legislative summit which opened Tuesday on Capitol Hill (hosted by the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA)), Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) stressed that every conversation about gaming should begin by stating that gaming is not something that the federal government authorized you to do, but a sovereign right.

She added that, “If the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act went away tomorrow, you would still be able to conduct gaming,”

Exemption from the NLRA has been sought after by the tribes ever since a 2004 ruling in which the NLRB asserted jurisdiction over Indian Country for the first time in decades, but efforts to address the issue ran into serious opposition from Democrats and their labor union allies at that time.

Since that 2004 ruling, tribes have won support from key Democrats by pitching the issue as one of parity with other governments, and with Republicans in control of the House and Senate, the bill has moved quickly in the 114th Congress.

The bill would resolve uncertainties like the one that arose in early June when the NLRB declined to assert jurisdiction at the WinStar World Casino and Resort, a casino owned by the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, citing the tribe’s treaty-protected right to self-governance.

Less than a week later, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals backed the NLRB’s jurisdiction over the Little River Casino and Resort, a casino owned by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Michigan, and three weeks later, expressing serious doubts about the application of the NLRA in Indian Country, the same court rejected the treaty claims of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe, also in Michigan.

The U.S. federal law that establishes the jurisdictional framework that governs Indian gaming, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), has been a source of extensive controversy and litigation since it was passed in 1988.