Tribal members, non-Indians live in the shadow of luxury

TULALIP — Darrel Fitch looks east and sees Indian land.

Chantel Rutledge looks west and sees homestead land.

The border between them is the road that shoots along the back edge of Quil Ceda Village. Fitch calls it 27th Street. Rutledge calls it either “the Quil,” a reference to Quil Ceda Creek, or George S. Williams Drive, in honor of a deceased tribal elder.

They each can easily walk across the asphalt to visit the other side.

Surmounting the invisible hurdles — cultural divides, disputes over the tribes’ hiring practices — are often more difficult.

The Tulalip Indian Reservation is a checkerboard: Pockets of non-tribal land are scattered throughout the reservation’s historic boundaries.

Many of the non-Indians who live there own sprawling waterfront homes on land that’s been in their families for generations, since the federal government split the reservation into lots. The federal government wanted the Indians to farm the land, but many Indians preferred cash from the sale of their allotments, and a life of fishing and other traditional practices.

Since the tribal government opened its first bingo hall, it has been slowly purchasing back the land its members sold. Still, much of the reservation is a jigsaw puzzle of tribal and non-tribal land. The jagged lines of that puzzle have often echoed the boundary between poverty and Snohomish County’s middle class.

When crews began building the 12-story Tulalip hotel, which held its grand opening recently, some tribal members who struggled with poverty now literally live in the shadow of the tribes’ new luxury offerings.

The luxury means Rutledge, 24, a poker dealer at the Tulalip Casino, can bring home a paycheck.

It is also a constant reminder of the gaps casino dollars haven’t yet filled.

“There are still a lot of people on welfare,” she said. “A lot of people could use some help.”

It’s almost impossible to measure how far tribal wealth trickles from blackjack tables and home-sized hotel suites, said Stephen Cornell, who studies American Indian tribes at the University of Arizona. He is also co-director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development at Harvard University.

Census statistics cover geographic areas, so they’re not useful in determining poverty levels on checkerboard reservations such as Tulalip. Tribes aren’t obligated to reveal their economic data, because they are sovereign nations, and also because they are private businesses.

“The best single predictor of whether gaming makes a major contribution to transforming tribal situations economically is really location, and Tulalip has a lovely economic location,” he said. “There’s a huge market driving past their front door on I-5 every day, and there are large cities nearby.”

Tulalip’s enviable location also brings criticism of the tribal government.

27th Street used to be a dead-end, Fitch said, and the tribe hasn’t done much to ease traffic congestion since the road was extended into a loop that stretches around the back of Quil Ceda Village. The neighborhood’s too noisy, he said.

“I’m ready to retire and move farther out, somewhere to get back to the quietness,” he said.

Mary Singh, 43, and her husband built a sprawling Mediterranean-style house on 116th Street that marks the northern border of Quil Ceda Village four years ago. She said they had to build a gate that blocks off their driveway to keep people from circling around near their front door after making a wrong turn.

When concerts come to the Tulalip Amphitheatre, Singh said, she can feel the bass drumming through her bedroom floor.

“We’re ready to move,” she said.

Arguments over traffic, road quality and other issues tend to have more bite when Indian tribes are involved, Cornell said. When a new strip mall or a big box store opens, nearby neighborhoods face the same problems, but when tribal governments begin building, there’s often a layer of fear among non-Indian neighbors.

“We’re taken aback when somebody we don’t recognize or don’t understand starts to play the game,” he said.

Many tribal members are struggling to understand the unfamiliar, too.

Rutledge, a mother of three, is surrounded by the casino’s bright lights as her regular shift stretches into the evening, but things are different at home.

She carries hair products out to the table under a tarp awning in front of her single-wide trailer, which she shares with her mother, and drags her gel-coated hands through her daughter’s dark hair.

She grew up just around the corner on 81st Street, near where the road once ended abruptly at the edge of the forest, where school buses U-turned on their daily routes.

Rutledge was in high school when the tribal government built Quil Ceda Village. She was just old enough to get a job dealing blackjack at the Tulalip Casino soon after it opened, during a difficult spell in which 240 of the casino’s 1,600 employees, primarily non-Indians, were laid off.

“A lot of the people there were angry that I could have a job,” she said.

Rutledge said she doesn’t plan on ever working anywhere else.

But the casino and other developments haven’t changed everything.

The tribal government is still struggling to find housing for a list that has soared to more than 300 families. Quil Ceda Village General Manager John McCoy repeatedly states that the tribe can provide a job for any tribal member who wants one, but the exact poverty and unemployment rates among tribal members are unclear.

Indians who live on reservations are four times as likely to live in poverty than other Americans, according to a 2007 study by Harvard University. Indians whose tribes own casinos are generally better off, but reservation economies, both gaming and non-gaming, are growing at about three times the rate of the U.S. economy.

That means there are questions from both Indians and non-Indians who live in the shadow of Quil Ceda Village.

Fitch wonders why the tribal government can’t keep up with the traffic it attracts.

Rutledge worries that the tribes’ income from the hotel and the casino won’t trickle down to the tribal members most in need.

Very few casino tribes have made more money than they have places to spend it, Cornell said.

“Most tribes still have more needs than they know how to handle,” he said.

Reporter Krista J. Kapralos: 425-339-3422 or

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