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Creating a road to independence

Chairman says casino expansion is part of larger economic future

By Lailani Upham

CSKT Chairman Vernon Finley explains his view on tribal sovereignty. (Lailani Upham photo) CSKT Chairman Vernon Finley explains his view on tribal sovereignty. (Lailani Upham photo)

PABLO — Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Chairman Vernon Finley sat down with Char-Koosta News to comment on issues of concern to the tribe including Gray Wolf Peak Casino expansion.

“There seems to be some incorrect information out there and I just want to express my thoughts on the matter,” he said.

Finley says the belief that the area for the expansion is a “culturally sensitive area” is a relatively new issue. He added if the area had been undisturbed and included cultural significance, he would be opposed of the development.

“The area to be included in the expansion (footprint) will be no larger than what is already disturbed today,” he stated.

Finley said the history of the area included in the expansion involved highway construction, a gravel pit, a mule palace, a railroad track, a power line, and housing. “There have been fireworks displays, cowboy parties (with their mule palace events), concerts, smokeshop-gas station-casino events going on at the location beginning before tribal ownership of the property. I’m afraid the time to oppose ‘disturbance’ in the area passed a long time ago.”

Finley said the rumor that CSKT Council is refusing to listen to elders is not true. He sat in at Salish elders meetings to listen to comments and also share his view on the support of the expansion. Another meeting involving all the stakeholders is scheduled in the near future in hopes of coming up with an acceptable compromise for everyone.

Finley pointed out that opposition to the expansion often includes gaming in general and the two issues should not be mixed together. “Whether or not we should be in gaming is not part of this particular discussion. We are already largely invested in gaming and I don’t think we should pull out of it from an economic standpoint.” However Finley said he listened and kept an open mind but he has yet to hear reasons to convince him to not expand gaming.

For Finley, the expansion is part of achieving sovereignty. The more economically independent CSKT becomes, he said, the easier it will be for the tribes to determine their future. But to understand how he came to his view on sovereignty, Finley went back a few decades and talked about how the cultural revival in the 1960s and 1970s was the antidote for all the addictions that were overpowering the people, especially alcohol.

* * *

During the cultural awakening period tribal folks across Indian country were experiencing a realization that the culture was being dishonored when alcohol was available at cultural events such as powwows. He said social ills were growing in the communities prior to the awakening.

“People starting realizing there is a connection in having a strong culture and having less social ills, such as drinking at a cultural gathering.”

However, he said learning the language and tribal culture is not going to mean one is not going to have socials ills. “Learning is only a part of the solution, but it’s an important part of it,” he said.

One of the solutions he says is economic freedom for the tribes.

“The only real way we are ever going to realize true sovereignty is with economic independence. We have so many issues facing our tribe and economic independence is the only way we will fully be able to determine how we will deal with those issues ourselves.”

Finley says relying on federal dollars and the rules that are attached to it is not helping social ills the tribal communities are dealing with.

“I would see some of the things that would happen in tribal programs where they would be accepting strings attached to federal dollars that are counter to tribal values.” That is going the opposite way he added.

“The more we encourage these assimilation efforts the more social ills we are asking for - and we really need to push more of the cultural emphasis.”

“The tribal issues need to be dealt with according to traditional tribal values when there is an area where tribal values are different than those the federal government is pushing. When a tribe has an economic independence, they have a lot to say about where their tribe is going,” Finley added.

“But the income must be primarily used for the health of the tribe as a whole. If you look at the tribes that took on newfound wealth and distributed it as per capitas, the social ills continued to grow,” Finley said.

Finley gave an example of tribes that encouraged and enhanced its cultural base, in particular the language; he said the social ills got less and less.

He said the Kalispel tribe puts the language and cultural program on the front lines to help govern what the tribe does, and that is to run things with the ‘’values” of their culture.

He said with their own governance and economic independence they now influence other tribes, including CSKT.

“Look at what they are doing in their own community is effective in not only helping their own, but also others.”

The list goes on. “That particular tribe who took the step of expanding their gaming venture has brought in revenue for their community to strive in building their own $30 million health care facility, buffalo herd and looking at different aspects. And they did so by agreeing to do whatever makes the business successful. They have the economic independence to make the culture and language strive as well,” he said.

He said this is the kind of economic independence he would like to see CSKT get to. Some tribes have a quick turn around with gaming but the reality is that it might take 30 years or more for the tribes to gain economic freedom.

He continued to give examples of what sister tribes have done.

“Another example is the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho; they think a lot more sovereign,” Finley explained.

Approximately 40 years ago the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho stood their ground against the U.S. government to make things right for their people.

“They never gave up. They didn’t have a reservation even and they were dying out.” He said alcoholism was a social ill they faced as well as most tribes.

Amy Trice, Kootenai tribal chairwoman at the time declared war on the United States. Through that stand the people received tribal recognition. Following recognition the tribe built a casino as their main source of revenue.

“Today they attend and support many powwows in the Northwest and put money up for them.”

When tribes accept use of federal monies, they must follow requirements attached to the funding.

“My goal is for our children and grandchildren to have the choice to pick and choose if they want to go along with federal requirements. If they don’t like it they can say, ‘It’s okay, we can do what we need to do.’”

That is what sovereignty is, says Finley.

“Right now the discussion is what is given to us and how much is allowed.”

“It’s a contradiction. We can’t say sovereign while we are asking permission.”

“I’d much rather be in a place where we can say ‘We determine the program, or the facility and we are going to pay for it ourselves.’”

Having true sovereignty in a tribal nation and leaders making their own choices for the people will help heal where it is needed.

* * *

Finley’s grandmother used to tell him opposites were married.

When you see one extreme and you don’t see the opposite it’s because you’re not looking, she would tell him. “It took me a long time to understand what she meant by all of it.”

Finley told a story of one of his uncles. “In a tragic event there’s humor if you bother to look for it. He’d always make an observation about a situation that would crack you up and you’d feel guilty about laughing because it seemed inappropriate. But that’s the way my grandma raised him,” he said. “He always knew those opposites are married,” Finley added.

“So when you look at what’s going on and what needs to happen you have to keep in mind that the opposite may contain an answer. For example the Gray Wolf expansion issue: it appears to some people that we are selling out cultural interests for money because a cultural person objects to the expansion. But like my grandmother used to say, those opposites are married. If we want greater support for culture and language in the future then we must look at increasing tribal income. But the trick is to make money without violating cultural values. And I believe that when it appears we are close to violating those values it will be the correct way because those opposites will be there.“

Finley says that coming up with a suitable compromise for the expansion will give us great strength as a nation. It is the focus on these kinds of stories and values that guide his vision of the future for the tribes.

“The only way we are going to get to sovereignty is economic independence,” he said.

“Those opposites are always part of it.”

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