Family, Tulalip Tribes feuding over lucrative land

SEATTLE — To the Campbell brothers, the 56 acres of prime land near the Tulalip Tribes’ popular casino and outlet mall was a chance for the family to generate income for generations to come.

The parcel in the 22,000-acre Western Washington reservation had been left behind by their grandmother, a tribal member who went by the white name of Katrina Jim and had been an allottee in a land agreement signed by the federal government in 1904 — back when the reservation had about 450 people.

But the Campbells are now in a dispute over the land with their own tribe and the federal government, saying the tribal council and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs purposefully devalued the land and then offered a quick, below market cash value to the 50-plus shareholders — and got enough sellers to gain a majority ownership.

“I’m a veteran. I’m a senior,” said 67-year-old Walt Campbell. “They’re supposed to put us on a pedestal. I feel uncomfortable doing this. But something has to be done. We got railroaded on this land.”

As for the tribe, what started with a bingo hall in 1983 developed into a casino, an entertainment center and a 12-story, 370-room hotel and resort along Interstate 5. The hotel alone cost $130 million to build.

The tribe also leases land for a 110-store outlet mall, located about 45 minutes north of shoppers living in the Seattle area and just 15 minutes from Everett. The tribe also hosts a Home Depot, a Wal-Mart and a soon-to-open Cabela’s.

In all, the Tulalips have built at a rapid pace one of the most economically successful tribes in the state. The revenue goes to benefit the 4,100 members — 2,600 who live within the reservation.

“The tribe is prosperous for its people,” said Les Parks, a former tribal council member and an ally of the Campbell brothers. “We are baffled as to why the council would want to oppress an Indian family of 50-plus members from earning an income from the land their grandmother wanted them to own.”

The 56 undeveloped acres sit a few hundred yards from the outlet mall, where people stream door to door to buy everything from clothes to electronics.

Tulalip Tribes chairman Mel Sheldon said the price paid to sellers was approved by the BIA.

“The Tribes paid the BIA approved price to those owners who wanted to sell,” he said in a statement.

Tribal officials declined to comment beyond that.

An inquiry to the Bureau of Indians Affairs this past week was not immediately returned.

But the Campbell brothers, and the 12 other family members who signed on to a lawsuit, say they don’t trust the relationship between the bureau and the tribe.

In 2008, the brothers and other members of the family created a corporation in an attempt to develop their land. Under this corporation, the land would be leased for development, but never sold. Because it’s on Indian land, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had to sign off on the deal, but the family did not get permission despite various attempts.

Moreover, the tribal government has not allowed water and sewage to be connected to the property, even though it is in close proximity to the mall. In a land appraisal by the bureau, that was taken into account. The brothers argue blocking water and sewage devalued the land, which was appraised at about $10 million, the lawsuit alleges.

“The land is supposed to be held in trust through BIA and it doesn’t seem they have our backs,” said Walt Campbell, who owns 7.6 percent of the land.

As their efforts to develop the land stalled, the tribal council offered a blanket $5.5 million offer for it in 2010, and enough members of the family agreed to sell, making the tribe majority owner.

That sale was approved in days, an unusually fast move by the bureau, Campbell’s attorney Gabriel Galanda said.

Soon after, the brothers filed a Freedom of Information Act seeking communications between the tribe and bureau, but so far those requests have not been answered, triggering a lawsuit filed in federal court this past month.

They have also filed a petition with the Bureau of Indian Affairs appeals board to reverse the sale of the land because not all shareholders were notified of it. The lawsuit also seeks to force the bureau to allow the family to develop the land on their own.

The complaint includes 45 percent of the land’s owners, including members who sold their shares but now think they were given a low price.

“I’d like to pass it down to my daughter,” Walt Campbell said. “If she has children, she can pass it down and so on.”

In November, the tribal council earmarked another $4.4 million for the “Campbell property,” according to Tulalip Business Committee minutes.

But the Campbell brothers say they’re not selling.

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