There’s a certain optimism and sense of limitlessness to Chairman Chief Allan’s air that explains, even better than statistics or testaments to his business acumen, just how the once-destitute Coeur d’Alene Tribe has become an economic power and political player in Idaho.
In his office the 35-year-old smiles boyishly. He’s speaking about the tribe’s immutable bond to the rolling Palouse region of North Idaho and his sense of mission as chairman: “We look at this tribe as a Fortune 500 company, but it’s not ours. We’re not doing it for us. We’re doing it for our kids.”
In the past 10 to 15 years the 2,000-member tribe has undergone an impressive turnaround. Tribal enterprises’ total revenue surpassed $300 million in its most recent fiscal year, with about $100 million in earnings. With 1,400 people on its payroll, the tribe is the second-largest employer in Idaho’s five northern counties. In 1989, unemployment among tribal members was close to 70 percent. This year, it’s in the single digits.
The vehicle for this transformation has been gambling. The Coeur d’Alene Casino and its resort and other related enterprises account for about two-thirds of the tribe’s earnings.
“The tribe made a conscious effort to use the money as seed money to build other things, just like any other business would do,” Allan says. “We wanted to expand our portfolio; we didn’t want to put all of our eggs in one basket.”
Last year the tribe bought a 70 percent share in the manufacturing company Berg Integrated Systems and relocated its facility to the reservation. Then, Berg landed a five-year, $400 million government contract to make fuel bladders for the military. In 2006 the tribe became the majority owner of Spokane-based HearthBread BakeHouse, a bakery with monthly sales of more than $300,000. Each venture employs about 60 people.
Another harder-to-define boost to the tribe was a 2001 legal victory in which the U.S. Supreme Court restored tribal ownership over the bed and banks of one-third of Lake Coeur d’Alene, a lake at the heart of the tribe’s culture and creation story and also at the heart of the city of Coeur d’Alene’s growth.
The ruling “changed the balance of power” in the region, says University of Idaho law professor Barbara Cosens, who specializes in water and Indian law. The tribe has become “a force people have to reckon with.”
|LOOKING FOR BALANCE: “We could sell out and say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to build as much as we can,’ all for the almighty buck, but we’ve never been about that,” says Chairman Chief Allan.|
“We’ve fought 20 years — I’ll just say 100 years — for that lake,” Allan says. “When the Supreme Court upheld that decision, there was a sense of ownership there for us, and there was a sense that we have to protect (the lake) and do good by it, because, to be honest, that lake is North Idaho’s economy.”
The lake is part of the country’s second largest Superfund site and holds 75 million metric tons of metals-contaminated sediments, the result of decades of mining in the Silver Valley to the east. But the EPA’s cleanup excludes the lake itself, leaving it to the tribe and the state to develop a management plan. A federal judge ruled that mining companies are liable for the lake’s cleanup, which could cost $3 billion, but what actually gets paid is still to be determined. To date the tribe has pledged $5 million from mining company settlements.
As its fortunes have improved, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe has become a political force in Idaho. The tribe has three delegates going to the Democratic National Convention in August, including Chairman Allan. In the entrance to his office hangs a poster-sized photograph of Allan, beaming, shaking the hand of Barack Obama, who campaigned in Boise for his successful run in Idaho’s Democratic primary. Last year, the tribe’s influence was demonstrated when it negotiated a rare agreement with the state government regarding a gas tax. After years of contention, the state agreed to honor the tribe’s right to collect the tax, equal to the state’s levy, within the tribal boundaries.
Tribal leaders have “proven their willingness to engage in productive government-to-government relations,” says Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, who began working with the tribe when he was lieutenant governor. “That’s led to programs like the tribe’s distribution of some casino profits to area non-Indian schools, its generous support of the Idaho Meth Project and breakthroughs like the recent agreement we reached over collection and allocation of fuel taxes at reservation pumps.”
Outside the tribal headquarters in the small town of Plummer, a few miles from the southwest shore of Lake Coeur d’Alene, signs of the tribe’s investments are everywhere. There’s the new Tribal Wellness Center, where natives and non-natives play basketball, swim and work out. Across the street, families walk into the award-winning Benewah Medical Center, largely financed by the tribe. (The Indian Health Service, funded because of treaty obligations, is the sole, and often meager, source of healthcare on most reservations. The IHS gets $2,000 fewer per capita than inmates in the federal prison system, according to federal figures.)
“One thing you’ll notice about the tribe is that we give back,” Allan says. “We know how it is to come from nothing.”
Just up Highway 95, the parking lot is almost full at 9:30 a.m. at the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort and Hotel. Each year 5 percent of gambling profits go to the region’s schools, a total of $10 million since 1994. The tribe also operates a bus system and built a new preschool, a senior center and an IT center complete with an Internet café.
The growth here is reflected in all of North Idaho, and it presents the tribe with a problem, however enviable: how to capitalize on the new economic opportunities while maintaining the rural tribal lifestyle.
“It scares the hell out of us,” Allan says. “We don’t want to say we’re not going to have any growth at all and have everything pass us by, but we want to be conscious about it, and also we do have a lake to protect.”
|GETTING IN SHAPE: The tribe’s new fitness center symbolizes its commitment to investing in its communities.|
In mid-2007, Idaho boasted the nation’s fastest growing economy, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, and the fourth-fastest growing population. From 1996 to 2006 Kootenai County’s population grew 36 percent, one of the fastest rates in the country. Coeur d’Alene (pop. 41,328) and Sandpoint (pop. 8,206), in Bonner County, are draws for amenity migrants and second-home buyers, and Kellogg to the east has big-time ski destination aspirations.
“I think growth throughout North Idaho is probably the hottest topic politically, at least in the neighboring counties, and obviously with the tribe,” says Robert Matt, the tribe’s administrative director. “All we’ve seen through our history is a whittling of our reservation for non-Indian growth.”
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s territory once encompassed more than 4 million acres from eastern Washington to western Montana before a series of treaties, beginning in 1873, reduced it to 345,000 acres, only about one-third of which is owned by the tribe and its members.
One of Allan’s goals is to expand the tribe’s land holdings within the reservation’s exterior boundaries. The tribe has cash on hand for purchases, but the tribe’s economic boom has coincided with years of double-digit growth in land values.
“The way we’re dealing with it,” Matt says, “is to try to acquire back our ownership rights, which is a galling thing to do, to buy back land that was stolen from you not so long ago, and to be paying these premium prices.”
|THE NEW PALOUSE: Golf courses are everywhere in North Idaho — even on the reservation.|
Even modest lots fronting Lake Coeur d’Alene cost millions. And the tribe, while it has jurisdiction over the southern one-third of the lake, owns only 36 acres with 700 feet of frontage it purchased in 2005 for $13 million. The tribe’s paltry lot and the high price of lakefront property is a “sore spot,” Allan says.
“Do we develop (that land we acquire) in a way that allows us to provide, or do we keep open space?” Matt asks. “It’s hard for the tribe, because if we don’t keep open space nobody else will, yet that’s where the money’s to be made.”
Rising land values have also made North Idaho less affordable for non-Indian locals. Housing price increases have outstripped incomes, for example. Matt sees similarities between — and a great deal of irony in — the growth happening today and the mining and logging booms of the past. “The people who ran over the top of us are getting ran over the top of by outside people who are coming in and doing the same thing to them that happened to us as the original inhabitants,” he says.
“What we’ve seen in our short lifetimes… the change has been dramatic. We’re better off financially and economically. We’re doing a lot better. People can pay their bills,” Matt says. “But at the same time, we’ve lost in a lot of other ways. Land (ownership) continues to be fragmented. We’re still isolated from the lake. Yeah, we got a $13 million tract of ground down there, but you can’t go be Indian on 100 acres.”
For more from the Spring 2008 issue of The New West magazine, including other stories about North Idaho, visit www.newwest.net/magazine.