The claims sounded so preposterous, many people thought at first they must be some kind of joke.
The tiny Puyallup Tribe of Indians, impoverished and long marginalized, claimed in the 1980s that it owned the land under much of downtown Tacoma, the Port of Tacoma, Fife and Puyallup.
Its potential claims even extended to the land under the home of Tacoma’s mayor at the time, Doug Sutherland.
It was no joke.
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In 1983, a federal appeals court had ruled in the tribe’s favor, handing over 12.5 acres of the Port of Tacoma to the tribe. The tribe’s further claims to thousands more acres seemed equally plausible.
“I just didn’t believe it,” said Karl Anderson, whose Concrete Technology company on the Tacoma Tideflats was included in the claims.
“This was the 20th century. Things weren’t supposed to work this way,” he said. “We bought this property, paid good money for it and built our factory. I didn’t see how they could all of a sudden say we didn’t own it.”
In 1988, after four years of intense negotiations, Puyallup tribal members voted 319-162 to accept a $162 million package of land, cash and social programs to relinquish their claims.
Tonight, 20 years after that vote, many of the aging warriors in the battle, including past heads of the Tribal Council Henry John, Frank Wright and Bill Sterud, and U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Belfair, will gather at Tacoma’s Hotel Murano, where they will sip cocktails, munch steak and salmon and reminisce about the long campaign.
The celebration will continue Monday morning with a larger gathering at the Murano, this one including U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Gov. Chris Gregoire.
Twenty years after the fact, the Puyallup Land Claims Settlement is being regarded as a historical turning point not only for the Puyallup Tribe but also for the port, Pierce County and the cities of Tacoma and Fife.
“I think it’s one of the most significant things we’ve accomplished,” Dicks said earlier this month from his Washington, D.C., office. “If it had gone the other way, it would have been a disaster.”
All parties have profited greatly since the agreement. The port, once hamstrung by the tribe’s claims, has expanded heavily into container traffic since the agreement. The settlement paid for removing the Blair Bridge, relocating Highway 509 and unlocking more of the development potential of the upper Blair Waterway. Those changes, the port says, provided 43,000 jobs in Pierce County.
‘THESE PEOPLE WERE BROKE’
The tribe, whose members had an annual per capita income before the settlement of just $3,308 – less than half the Pierce County average – is now one of the county’s largest employers. Profits from the tribe’s casinos alone pay each tribal member $24,000 a year.
“Twenty years ago, these people were broke,” said John Weymer, a tribal spokesman. “If you look back at the progress they’ve made since then, it’s phenomenal. They’ve become an economic power in the county and the state.
“The Land Claims Settlement was kind of the first step in getting where they are today.”
Wright, the Puyallup tribal chairman during the first two years of negotiations, was a strong advocate of reaching a settlement and moving on.
“You could always have that dream that one day you’ll get the land back,” he said, “but, in reality, that wasn’t happening.”
“We would have been tied up in court forever,” he said. “Our lawyers were telling us, ‘Even if you win in court, they will never, ever give the land back.’ They warned us that a judge might decide in our favor but then say that we should get only what the land was worth back in the 1800s.”
Tribal members were sharply divided on whether to settle, and, as tribal chairman, Wright bore the brunt of much of the anger and criticism. He saw himself as a realist, he said, but some members believed that anyone who would give up on the land that they said had essentially been stolen from the tribe was a traitor.
“It was tough,” he said. “My own dad, from the very beginning, was opposed to it. I told him that I couldn’t succeed in accomplishing this unless I had his approval.”
The two of them had a serious, heart-to-heart talk, Wright said, during which he explained to his father his dream for a better future for tribal members.
“‘With this settlement there is hope, an opportunity to create jobs, to get an education,’” Wright remembers telling his father.
At last, Wright said, his father conceded, “‘OK,’ he said. ‘You’ve given me a reason. I can support you.’”
Not all of the tribe members were so easily won over. Even now, some have second thoughts.
“It was a pittance,” said Ramona Bennett, a former tribal chairwoman and a nationally recognized Indian activist. “It was pennies on the dollar that we got compared to the worth.”
“But,” she added, “it was certainly better than the status quo.”
‘WE ALL NEEDED A DEAL’
Among the participants at tonight’s dinner will be Jim Waldo, the Tacoma lawyer and onetime gubernatorial candidate who served as the chief negotiator for the non-Indian side.
Waldo said he originally had difficulty convincing local government leaders and property owners of the seriousness of the claims, but that he knew the tribe was operating from a position of considerable strength.
“The tribe not only had the land claims, it had sovereign immunity, which meant they couldn’t be sued unless they agreed to be sued,” Waldo said. “That meant non-Indians had no recourse in court.”
From a legal standpoint, the tribe’s various categories of land claims had different degrees of strength, Waldo said. Yet even the weakest claims were impediments for non-Indian landowners.
“The tribe could have an impact just by the existence of the claims,” he said. “If they just sat still, they could inflict pain in the community around them.”
Businesses and homeowners were unable to get clear title to their land, which stopped them from selling or using it as collateral for loans.
“On the other hand,” Waldo said, “the tribe had a number of problems, including high unemployment, and, without resources, they couldn’t accomplish their goals.”
“We all needed a deal,” Waldo said. “They had things they wanted that they didn’t have, and they had things of value that they could trade for them.”
Dicks, who is praised by both sides as having been instrumental in the agreement, counts the Land Claims Settlement among his greatest successes as a statesman.
Even after Dicks’ 32 years in Congress, the settlement shows up prominently in his online, home-page biography.
The stakes in the negotiations were enormous, Dicks said.
The land in question “was part of the Port of Tacoma, part of Tacoma, part of Fife, part of Puyallup. People could have literally lost their homes, their businesses,” he said.
His personal role aside, Dicks said he doubts a settlement could have been reached without the influence of Inouye, at that time chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs.
“He came and visited – we can never agree on the exact number – either nine or 12 times,” Dicks said. “He happened to be chairman of Indian Affairs, plus he cared about tribes. And he was a friend of mine.”
When negotiations reached a stalemate, as often happened, Inouye would meet privately with one or both sides, participants remembered, and in his low, gravelly drawl, insist that they not give up.
‘BEADS AND TRINKETS AGAIN’
For non-Indians, the stakes in the negotiations were primarily economic – businesses that could not expand, jobs that would not be created, trade opportunities that could not be taken advantage of.
For the tribe, the stakes were more emotional. One hundred and thirty years after the 1854 Medicine Creek Treaty, the Puyallups’ sense of outrage over having been forced off their land had not diminished.
They had been cheated, they believed, and their culture nearly destroyed. Their land had not only been stolen, but it also had been polluted and ruined by whites.
Dissension over terms of an agreement within the tribe was magnified by Indian activists from outside. National activists, including Russell Means, were quick to criticize the negotiation effort, Waldo remembered, no matter how reasonable the intent.
“Their feeling was, ‘Here we go with the beads and trinkets again,’” he said.
“So much progress has been made since then, it’s difficult now to go back and imagine what it was like. There was such a high degree of anger and animosity, very deep feelings of ‘They stole our land. They stole our fish.’ Contention was really at a boil at that point.”
Puyallup tribal members voted down a settlement offer approved by the Tribal Council in 1986, and shortly afterward, they recalled Wright from the council by a vote of 118-102.
Wright said that only made him more determined.
“It was probably the best thing,” he said. “It just gave me more drive to see that this happened.
“I wanted it. It was a means to get to an end. We needed more opportunities for people, better housing, jobs, education.
“Was it a good deal? Absolutely it was a good deal. Life is better for tribal members today.
“Everybody can be a Monday morning quarterback and talk about what should have been done. I know that I always had the interests of the membership in my heart. At no time in history, and probably no time in the future, have things improved so much and so fast for the tribe.”
‘WE MADE THE BEST OF IT’
Twenty years later, former tribal chairwoman Bennett still has mixed feelings about the settlement.
“It was a great deal for the white people,” she said. “They finally had clear title and could sell things and take out loans. They were trespassing, and they finally had clear title. I’m sure they were very happy.”
For the tribe, she says, the terms could have been a lot better.
Bennett believes a case could have been made for tribal ownership not only for the Port of Tacoma but also for all of Commencement Bay.
At times, the tribe had been granted reservation land on both sides of the bay and, under international law, she said, “If you own the land on both sides of a body of water, you own the water.”
“There might have been a court someplace that might have seen that and agreed with it,” she said. “I truly believe that. They might have said, ‘Yes. Give those Indians their port.’”
Still, Bennett said, “I think we made the best of it. We could have died with our moral claim and never realized any of the benefits of what we really owned. In the end, we at least ended up with enough to work with.”
The settlement gave the tribe a parcel of land on the Blair Waterway, where in 1996 it docked a Mississippi-style riverboat, which it christened the Emerald Queen, and turned it into a highly profitable gambling operation.
Net profits from the tribe’s two casinos averaged more than $2.5 million a week last year, and each of the tribe’s 3,500 members (more than twice the membership at the time of settlement) receives $2,000 a month in profit sharing.
Gambling profits are unquestionably what turned the tribe around economically, but both sides say the tribe’s success in gaming probably would not have been possible without the settlement.
“Without the settlement they never would have had the resources and people available to come in and help them do that,” said Concrete Technology’s Anderson. “The settlement gave them the wherewithal to make that happen. It got them started.
“Without the settlement, the tribe would not be anywhere remotely close to where they are today.”
Beyond that, the land claims negotiations and eventual agreement established a relationship of trust and mutual cooperation, participants say.
“The settlement was instrumental in a couple of ways,” said John Bell, the tribe’s lead attorney and chief negotiator. “It provided the tribe with land, funds and resources, and it also established a much better working relationship with other local governments.”
“Things began to function much more smoothly,” he added. “Things that used to cause dispute are now frequently resolved without difficulty.”
Earlier this year, the port and the tribe signed a joint agreement with SSA Containers Inc. for a terminal facility on land turned over to the tribe in the settlement.
“It gave them land, and it gave them resources to work with,” Dicks said. “This jump-started their economic progress.
“There was the threat of a lawsuit. We took that off the table. It was a big deal not to have to worry about that.
“There would have been continuing disputes between the locals and the tribe.”
“I hate (the term) ‘win-win,’ Dicks said, “but this was a win-win.”
Bennett grudgingly agrees.
“When I was growing up there were signs on businesses that said, ‘No dogs or Indians,’” she said. “With the casino, you don’t hear that anymore. That’s really a positive for the children in our community. They can see a future, and there’s a sense of permanence.”
Before the settlement, Bennett said, “we were homeless on our own reservation. We didn’t even own our cemetery. The Presbyterians owned the cemetery, and the state owned the river.”
“Every time a house burned down in this area, it was an Indian’s house because it was all substandard housing,” she said. “Infant mortality was off the graph. Sicknesses, drug overdoses … all of them were off the graph back in the late ’60s and early ’70s.”
“Now there truly is a sense of permanence,” Bennett said. “The younger generation can actually see a future now. Since the settlement we’ve really been able to stretch out and grow and develop.”
Tim Thompson, Dicks’ top aide throughout the negotiations and now president of the Thompson Smitch Consulting Group in Tacoma, said the land settlement should not be regarded as an end in itself. Its legacies, he said, are “organic.”
“You have to remain vigilant to keep the relationship vibrant every day,” Thompson said. “The moment it deteriorates in any way, you begin to jeopardize the future.”
Evidence that the settlement’s legacy is still alive became apparent in the recent negotiations among the port, the tribe and SSA over development along the Blair Waterway, Thompson said. Agreements on the development were signed last April.
“The difference from 20 years ago is that then the parties probably would have just said, ‘Go to hell,’” Thompson said. “Instead, they all signed it.”
“The Land Claims Settlement laid a foundation,” he said, “but the relationship needs to be constantly nurtured. If it isn’t maintained, then the full power of the settlement will never be reality.”
Thompson sees little value in rehashing old war stories about how the settlement came about, and, as one of the organizers of tonight’s 20th anniversary gathering at the Murano, he said he’s done what he can to limit the looks backward.
“Let’s move on,” he said. “That way the true value of the settlement will be realized.”
Rob Carson: 253-597-8693