Carol Evans listened as a tribal elder recounted tragedy.
It was 1858 and U.S. troops in today’s Inland Northwest were coming after Indians. Tribal leaders told their people to flee. A woman living near Deep Creek heeded the call and ran north carrying her baby in a baby board. But her baby drowned while she crossed the Spokane River. The mother hung the baby board on a tree near the shore, and the tree grew until the baby board became part of the tree.
It was known as the baby board tree.
Until that retelling last fall – soon after Evans became chairwoman of the Spokane Tribe – Evans had never heard that part of the story.
She had known about the baby board tree. It was on the north bank of the river on the Spokane Indian Reservation near her parents’ home. She remembered that her father was extremely concerned when it became clear that the tree was dying.
“I didn’t know that he knew what he was talking about. When I heard this elder tell that story, I thought, ‘Wow, that was the tree that was falling, and that’s the story behind it,’ ” she said. “When I heard that story, it really touched my heart.”
Last summer, Evans became the first woman to lead the five-member Spokane Tribal Business Council, the tribe’s elected government.
Her selection was made at a crucial juncture in the tribe’s history.
Later this year, Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to decide if the tribe can build a major casino development on the West Plains. If approved, the project – potentially $400 million at full build-out – would include retail stores, restaurants and a hotel and would generate millions of dollars a year for the tribe in revenue.
While the casino proposal has taken prominence in recent years, the tribe also is lobbying state leaders to bring salmon back to the Spokane River and federal officials to improve housing programs. Tribal leaders have taken a public stance opposed to a plan to expand the Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park. The tribe is expanding renewable energy programs on its reservation and is active in advising city of Spokane officials on projects that affect pollution in the Spokane River.
“Over time, we’ve become more materialistic, and sometimes we forget our ancestors were the keepers of the environment or we were the ones who made sure we didn’t abuse things or overuse things or mistreat each other,” Evans said in an interview last year. “We need to be more welcoming. I view myself as being kind of a quiet progressive leader that wants to see a vision for the people and bring people together and try to lead them in that direction. Not force them.”
Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart has worked with Evans on several projects, including city plans to improve sewage treatment. He said she’s a quiet leader, one who leads by example.
“She’s very level-headed,” Stuckart said. “She’s very well-respected in whatever room she’s in.”
Greg Abrahamson, who serves with Evans on the tribal council, said Evans may have a calm demeanor, but she is passionate.
“Some people think that she’s quiet, but she can be pretty boisterous,” he said. “She’s doing a good job.”
Mother and grandmother were also tribal leaders
Evans was selected as chairwoman last summer by the rest of the tribal council following the resignation of Rudy Peone, who took a position at the U.S. Department of Interior.
Evans was elected to serve on the council in 2013, becoming only the second woman to serve on the body. She had worked for the tribe since 1985, most of the time as finance director. Her campaign for the council position stressed the need for better planning, and she promised to improve communication and transparency.
“All the years she’s been with the tribe, that gives her a lot of strengths,” Abrahamson said.
Evans initially dismissed the importance of being the first woman picked to lead the council.
“I had an elderly woman tell me I was wrong,” Evans said. “That I need to take it with honor and be proud because what I do opens the door for all those little door girls, and I never, ever looked at it that way.”
Perhaps because being a woman leader was common in her family.
In 1983, her mother, Pauline Stearns, became the first woman elected to the tribal council. Her grandmother, Cecelia (Peone) Abrahamson was elected to the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council in the early 1970s.
“She was a very traditional lady,” Evans said of her grandmother. “She would come over and visit, and as early as 3, I remember going out and visiting elders in homes with her. She taught me how to enter an elder’s home, how to great them, how to pay our respects.”
Her mother ran the Spokane Tribe’s child care center, which is now named after her. As a council member, she focused on health care and women’s and children’s issues.
“She was a true believer in ethical standards, holding people accountable and transparency,” Evans said.
Strong in her convictions
Evans, 60, grew up on the reservation with five brothers and one sister in what she describes as a “strong, traditional family.” All of her siblings still live on the reservation.
She graduated from Wellpinit High School and worked her way through Eastern Washington University. She and her husband, Terry Evans, have four children, three of whom live in Spokane. Their youngest is a senior at Wellpinit.
“I just always knew that someday I would run for council because I wanted to help the tribal people, but I knew it had to be right for me,” she said. “It didn’t feel right until I was older.”
Terri Parr Wynecoop worked with Evans at the tribal offices when Evans was finance director.
“She may appear to be on the quiet side, but she is very strong in her convictions,” said Wynecoop, who is executive director of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. “Her approach, in my mind, is always very comprehensive.”
Two tribes remain close despite friction over casino project
The Spokane Tribe has about 2,900 members. About half live on the reservation.
As a sovereign nation, the tribal council deals with a wide range of issues. The tribe struggles with high unemployment, and substance abuse and suicide remain at concerning levels, Evans said.
“We need a lot of healing,” she said. “Money isn’t the answer to everything but it sure can help. You can rebuild communities. You can build halfway houses. You at least help people go to college or you can help pay for them to go to treatment.”
She said the tribe is working with groups including Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation to add more affordable housing. The council is involved in overseeing the cleanup of a uranium mine, a Superfund site, and it works to preserve its language, Salish, and maintain its culture.
“Some of the elders say if you bring back your customs, some of your traditions and some of your belief systems and bring back some of your traditional foods like the salmon, the berries and the roots, you will heal,” she said. “So, I listen to that, and I think the idea of bringing back the salmon is just a wonderful idea.”
Earlier this month, Evans and other tribal leaders testified to state legislators in favor of bringing salmon back behind the Grand Coulee Dam.
The tribe’s proposed casino, called the Spokane Tribe Economic Project (STEP), has been opposed by Greater Spokane Incorporated, Spokane County and Northern Quest Casino, which is owned by the Kalispel Tribe.
“Regardless of whatever happens there needs some healing time,” Evans said of the looming decision on whether the STEP project can move ahead.
Evans said the STEP project has huge potential to boost her tribe by providing jobs and revenue that would improve health care, housing and other programs.
She said despite the Kalispels’ opposition to STEP, the two tribes remain close.
“What they’re doing is strictly business,” she said. “We don’t really wish them anything bad because they’ve been able to take their revenues from that location and really improve the overall living standards of their tribal members, so you’ve got to be happy for them.”
She said many living on the traditional homelands of her tribe have little knowledge of the native people who used to live there, and she and other leaders are eager to share.
“We want them to know where the salmon came in and where our salmon chiefs welcomed tribes and non-Indians to share in the harvest,” Evans said. “We want the community to know that history. We want them to know where our people lived and how we sustained and how we picked berries on Spokane Mountain or we fished on the river or we picked the camas and the roots on the prairie.”
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