After almost three decades of seeking distinction as a tribe and fending off opponents, members of the Snohomish Tribe of Indians should get a letter from the federal government this week telling them what their future holds.
If they are granted official tribal status, theirs will be a future of sovereignty, the right to enter into agreements with the federal government and develop property into trust land.
They don’t yet have any land, and say they aren’t ready to pursue building a casino, but they also haven’t ruled that out.
For now the Snohomish are seeking "all the benefits that recognized tribes get," said Bill Matheson, chairman of the Snohomish Tribe, which already has organized as a tribe despite its lack of federal recognition.
If the Snohomish Indians are denied, as their first request was in 1983, the tribe will have to try again.
All along, the Tulalip Tribes have fought against the Snohomish becoming a tribe. They say the Snohomish Tribe already exists as one of a handful of tribes recognized as Tulalips.
It’s not a matter of having to share resources or rights, but a matter of identity, said Tulalip Tribes Vice Chairman Stan Jones Sr.
Who is Snohomish and who isn’t depends on whomyou ask.
The Snohomish Tribe members applying for federal recognition say they — the ones whose families did not move onto the Tulalip Reservation decades ago — should be the official Snohomish Tribe.
The their independence as a tribe goes back to the time of the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855, which created the Tulalip Reservation and included close to a dozen tribes — the Snohomish being one of the larger ones.
Matheson said once some Snohomish Indians joined the group that became known as the Tulalip Tribes, they gave up their identity as Snohomish Indians, and officially became Tulalips.
That separation is what makes the Snohomish Indians different enough from the Tulalips to deserve their own identity, Matheson said.
But Tulalip leaders say the Snohomish Indians are already recognized as part of the Tulalip Tribes.
John McCoy, a state representative and a frequent spokesman for the Tulalip Tribes, said while the majority of Snohomish moved to the reservation, some "scattered to the hills and chose to assimilate."
The Indian Reorganization Act in the 1930s established the Skykomish, Snoqualmie and Snohomish on the Tulalip Reservation with eight lesser tribes, McCoy said.
The tribes worked together and developed a constitution that today governs the Tulalip Reservation.
Though he is part Snohomish, Jones considers himself part of the Tulalip Tribes. His grandmother was a Snohomish Indian.
"The Snohomish are already recognized," Jones said. "The reason I say that is that we are the Snohomish."
Jones said if the non-reservation Snohomish are granted recognition, the Tulalips will file a challenge.
"Oh, for sure," he said. "If we let them become the Snohomish Tribe, and we’re the Snohomish Tribe, all of a sudden there’s going to be … all kinds of Snohomish tribes."
McCoy acknowledged the Tulalips have put quite a bit of effort — including genealogy research and attorney fees — into fighting the Snohomish Tribe’s bid for federal recognition.
"These are just a number of folks who, sitting around a wood stove talking about their heritage, decided to do some genealogy research and decided, ‘Oh, we’re a tribe now,’" McCoy said. Matheson and his 1,711 off-reservation tribal members see it differently, in large part because they weren’t allowed to vote on the Indian Reorganization Act.
"That’s where the split came. Some Snohomish people stayed and became part of the conglomeration of tribes," Matheson said. "They gave up their identity when they voted for the Indian Reorganization Act. To me, they gave up their tribal identity."
To Matheson, that means the only true Snohomish Indians are those who didn’t become Tulalips.
Matheson said his family and 33 others decided not to live on the reservation because they didn’t want to conform to rules that didn’t allow them to speak their native language in school, and because the land couldn’t be farmed.
"We felt we could do much better than to go to the Tulalip Reservation, which was nothing but swamp and had no future for our children," Matheson said. "We went our way and continued to hold the tribe together since that time."
While the Snohomish tribe does not use a blood quantum, a way to measure how much American Indian blood a person has, Matheson said potential members must prove they are descendants of a full-blooded Snohomish.
"It’s not easy to get into the tribe," he said.
Both Jones and McCoy said if the Snohomish are recognized, they doubted there would be a mass exodus of Snohomish descendents leaving the Tulalip Tribes.
McCoy said there was very little backlash after the Stillaguamish Tribe received recognition in 1976, nor when the Snoqualmie Tribe was made official in 1999.
Matheson and other off-reservation Snohomish members believe the Tulalips’ opposition is fueled by greed.
"It’s about money and fishing rights," Matheson said. "I don’t think they’re going to lose anything. They might think there’s a possibility of having to share."
There is a range of benefits to becoming an official tribe, said Judith Joseph, superintendent of the Puget Sound division of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Recognized tribes can apply for federal dollars and obtain services, such as health insurance, for tribal members.
However, federal dollars for tribes are stretched so thin that money isn’t really a motivation to seek tribal recognition, Joseph said.
"It’s not really about the funding part of it," she said. "It’s that they feel they’ve stayed together as a group for all this time and want to be recognized."
Tribes may also buy land and try to bring it into trust — land given sovereign, reservation status.
The landless Snohomish are searching for land. Still, if they get some and get federal recognition, don’t expect it to be occupied by slot machines and blackjack tables any time soon, Matheson said.
"We did a survey of our members, and casinos were the last thing they wanted us to pursue," he said. Instead, members listed things such as education and health care programs as their main priorities, he said.
He knows big casino developers could approach tribal leadership. But the tribe’s first and main goal will be to get programs going for its members.
"In my opinion, I think we’re pretty saturated with casinos now, and there are other ways of making money," Matheson said. "It’s on the back burner, but I’m sure some pressure is going to be put on us."
Despite the opposition and lengthy recognition process, Matheson is confident his tribe’s bid will be successful.
"I think we did a thorough job," he said. "We know who we are and we know where our people lived. And I think we’ve proved that to the (Bureau of Indian Affairs) and that we will be federally recognized."
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