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Wednesday, July 26, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Muckleshoot Tribe Rises From Ashes Of 1970 Fire

SINCE THE EARLY 1970s, the Muckleshoot Tribe has fought its way back from the brink of extinction. Court victories and a new casino have brought hope to the reservation. But still, the per-capita income is $4,000 a year. --------------------------------

AUBURN - Twenty-five years ago, the only official sign that King County was home to an Indian reservation was a clapboard building with no heat or plumbing, the meeting hall for a desperately poor group called the Muckleshoots.

Then that building burned to the ground.

The fire prompted a congressman to visit the reservation. He saw 25 people living in two side-by-side one-room shacks and others living in cars.

The King County executive also toured the "Indian ghetto" after an aide said he wasn't even aware there was a reservation in the county. When he returned, he ordered the health department to poison the rats.

In 1970, the tribal government had no place to meet, almost no budget and owned only half an acre of the 3,840-acre reservation that tribal members once dominated. Tribal leaders worried the Muckleshoots would be disbanded.

"It was like living in a deprived, decimated country," said Sonny Bargala, 46, a Muckleshoot who was born on the reservation and returned to it in 1970 after fighting in the Vietnam War.

"There was not much attempt at government or business. People were hoping for federal money, and that was about it. The whole place was looking for a handout, and nobody was getting it."

SETTLEMENT OPENS OPPORTUNITIES

Compare that with the Muckleshoot Tribe of today.

By the end of this year, the tribal government will own more than 800 acres of the reservation, which, combined with land holdings by individual Muckleshoots, will give the tribe and its 1,275 members majority ownership of the reservation for the first time in nearly a century.

Already this year, the tribe has opened a casino that promises to make two to three times as much money annually as all other tribal enterprises combined.

Later this summer, the tribe will break ground on a business park, and by next spring it is scheduled to begin building a 25,000-seat outdoor amphitheater it hopes will rival the Gorge at George in Grant County.

And earlier this month, the tribe officially arrived as a regional power by negotiating an estimated $40 million to $50 million in cash, land, educational opportunities and other concessions from the cities of Tacoma and Seattle.

The deals, if completed by the tribe and the two cities, will allow Tacoma to build a water pipeline on the Green River, where the tribe enjoys fishing rights, and Seattle to develop the soon-to-be-closed 151-acre Sand Point naval base, which the tribe claims is part of its aboriginal fishing territory.

All of these ventures will allow the tribe to buy back more of its land that was sold away, start a tribal police force for the first time in 15 years and embark on an ambitious program to finance a college education for every willing Muckleshoot, tribal leaders say.

"The Muckleshoots have truly entered a new age," said Gregg Paisley, the tribe's director of economic development.

"We are ready to shake off the chains of second-class citizenry and, for the first time in 150 years, take our destiny into our own hands," tribal Chairwoman Virginia Cross said recently.

WOMEN LED THE TRIBE'S REBIRTH

The seeds for this rebirth were sown in the early 1970s. The meeting-hall fire, which left the tribe with nothing, rallied the local Native-American community.

A series of dynamic Muckleshoot leaders, most of them women, began fighting for what they believed were treaty rights guaranteed when the reservation was formed in 1857.

It began in 1970 when the city of Auburn tried to condemn some reservation land to build a road.

Two Muckleshoot landowners, Eva Jerry and Elvina Cross, deeded their properties back to the tribe, thereby making it immune from condemnation.

Auburn eventually built its road, taking a slightly different route, but the implication of what the two women had done was clear: Native Americans as individuals may get steamrolled, but united under a tribal government the Muckleshoots could compete with anyone.

Led by Chairwoman Florence Harnden, the Muckleshoots awoke from what one tribal leader called "a decades-long sleep" and began taking back land, resources and legal rights they claimed had been eroded over the course of a century.

In the fall of 1970, the federal government, the Muckleshoots and six other tribes sued the state for restricting Native-American salmon fishing.

Muckleshoots openly defied state law and repeatedly were arrested for catching salmon in Lake Washington.

BOLDT ENDS "FISH WARS"

The long "fish wars" between whites and the tribes culminated with federal Judge George Boldt's landmark ruling in 1974 that the tribes were entitled to half of the state's salmon catch.

In 1972, the Muckleshoots sued Puget Sound Power & Light Co. for diverting the tribe's river water when the utility built a dam in 1910. The tribe eventually won settlements in that case estimated at $50 million in value.

COURT FIGHTS ASSERTED THEIR RIGHTS

Buoyed by those lawsuits, the tribe for two decades fought to establish its rights in almost every facet of public life.

The Muckleshoots sued the state to stop it from imposing sales taxes on the reservation, fought with the state over liquor sales and license plates, stopped a developer from building a subdivision on an ancient riverbed, opened a bingo hall in defiance of state laws, battled Auburn over the city's practice of zoning reservation land and claimed exclusive jurisdiction over its foster children, who routinely were taken from the reservation and placed in non-Native-American homes.

The Muckleshoots won many of these legal battles. But it was joining the fight that helped bring an attitude of confidence to a community often plagued by fatalism, tribal leaders say.

"We felt we had been systematically wronged so often," said Bargala, now the tribe's vice chairman and head of the gaming commission. "It was important to prove that we existed as a government."

PROFITS PLOWED BACK INTO SERVICES

The tribe was as conservative with its money as it was aggressive in court.

Leaders such as Harnden, Marie Starr and today's chairwoman, Virginia Cross, consistently urged the Muckleshoots to plow any monetary gains, no matter how meager, back into tribal services.

Proceeds from the bingo hall, which at its peak brought the tribe about $1 million a year in profit, were used to buy back reservation land and support a youth home and senior center.

On the day the casino opened in April, Cross vowed that no profits would ever be given as direct payments to tribal members.

"Every dollar this casino makes will go toward building a better future for all Muckleshoots," she said. That means education or more business development, tribal leaders say.

Tribes can't assess property taxes or income taxes and typically can charge only sales taxes on Native-American enterprises, leaving them with no source of revenue other than economic development.

Later this year, the tribal council will consider other ventures as well, such as a hotel and convention hall near the casino, a 24-hour fast-food restaurant and a cultural museum featuring Native-American history. Also in the works is a Native-American college.

POVERTY, JOBLESSNESS STILL HIGH

The rewards of this dizzying growth haven't yet filtered to the tribe as a whole, tribal leaders acknowledge.

About half the working-age people on the reservation still are unemployed, and the per-capita income there is only $4,000 annually.

With the tribe's $6 million in federal grants each year threatened by budget cuts, not even the large profits predicted from the casino can dig the tribe out of its economic hole, the Muckleshoots say.

Diversifying to businesses other than gambling is crucial to continuing the tribe's growth into a financially independent entity.

Whatever problems lie ahead for the Muckleshoots, the psychological importance of the settlements with Tacoma and Seattle this month can't be overstated, the tribe's members say.

"Indian tribes have always been seen as illegitimate nuisances," said Paisley, the tribe's economic manager. "But having a place at the table with Tacoma and Seattle - that gets Muckleshoots to think differently about themselves."

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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