The Snoqualmie Tribe's Big Gamble

Can the once-proud Snoqualmie Tribe regain its heritage and future by following the casino path?

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Can the once-proud Snoqualmie Tribe regain its heritage and future by following the casino path?

According to a Snoqualmie legend, Moon the creator, on his way upstream in search of the people from whom he was snatched as a baby, came upon a place in the river where a large weir obstructed fish passage. He turned this spot into a lofty cataract—present-day Snoqualmie Falls—and ordained: “Birds flying over…will fall, and people shall gather them up and eat them. Deer coming down the stream will perish, and the people shall have them for food. Game of every kind shall be found by the people for their subsistence.”

Many, many years later, the modern-day Snoqualmie Tribe is once again turning to game—but of an entirely different sort—for its subsistence, and much more, it hopes. Like so many tribes in Washington and across the country, the 650-member Snoqualmie Tribe—whose people live primarily in the Snoqualmie Valley, but also around Marysville and south Seattle—decided to bet on a casino to change its fortune. Snoqualmie Casino—whose opening last November drew upward of 30,000 area residents, with a line of cars stretching for some four miles along the breakdown lane of Interstate 90—was the culmination of years of dreaming, hard work and perseverance in the face of sometimes overwhelming obstacles.

Unlike other tribes who have opened casinos in the state, the Snoqualmies—who once dominated western Washington, controlling the all-important trade route through the Cascades to the sea—at one time weren’t even recognized by the federal government and had no reservation or land of their own. Their quest for government recognition took decades—years in which they pieced together enough evidence of cohesion to convince the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to recognize them as a “domestic sovereign nation” under federal law—a designation they had lost in 1952 (see page 117). When they were finally granted this status in 1999, the tribe embarked on a quest to make its dreams—a reservation that tribal members could call home, world-class health care for Snoqualmies and other Northwest natives, and access to as much education as any individual tribal member would want to pursue—come true.

As a recognized tribe, the Snoqualmies were free to buy land and, pending approval from the BIA, convert it into their sovereign territory not subject to the laws or taxes of the surrounding county, state or nation. While establishing a reservation and opening a casino seemed a likely path for the tribe, there was initial resistance. “The tribe didn’t like the idea,” says Ray Mullen, the tribe’s “drum bearer” and one of nine members of the democratically elected Tribal Council, which essentially runs the tribe. Some tribal members were opposed to gambling in and of itself, let alone profiting from it, Mullen relates, while others, like himself, thought it just seemed too overtly commercial and unrelated to the tribe’s history.

src= As drum bearer, Mullen is responsible for learning traditional Snoqualmie songs and sharing them at tribal ceremonies whenever he is called to serve. With long, flowing salt-and-pepper locks offset by an elegantly groomed mustache and goatee, Mullen, 48, looks the part. He grew up learning dribs and drabs of Lushootseed—the common language of the Northwest coast before white settlement—from his grandmothers, both full-blooded Snoqualmies. One of his brothers, Joseph, currently chairs the Tribal Council, while another, John, is employed as the tribe’s master carver.

“The options really w