WELLPINIT, Wash. – Interior Secretary Sally Jewell joined dozens of children from the Spokane Tribe on Thursday morning on the matted floor of the Wellpinit High School gym, locking hands and stamping feet to the beat of ceremonial drums in what is known as “the Happy Dance.”
The event, part of a weeklong celebration of the tribe’s culture attended by students on the cusp of summer vacation, has special significance this week, as the tribe was chosen for a prestigious grant program by the federal government and received approval to build its long-sought casino and retail development in Airway Heights.
“We’re approaching a time when self-determination among tribes is really taking off,” Jewell said at a news conference held Thursday morning in Wellpinit, the center of the Spokane Indian Reservation where services including public safety, education, elderly housing and health care are headquartered. “Tribes are choosing what’s right for them. Each of their needs are different. Each of their desires are different.”
The former REI chief executive announced the visit after President Barack Obama earlier this week named the tribe’s reservation a Promise Zone, a federal grant-priority program. Two days later, Gov. Jay Inslee OK’d the $400 million real estate development project, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs published new rules dictating the consideration of tribal membership in child custody proceedings.
The Promise Zone designation comes with no promise of federal dollars, but it makes it easier to win grants for projects such as improving schools, education, policing and technology infrastructure, Spokane Tribal Business Council members said.
Kathy Moss, manager of the Wellpinit Trading Post, hopes that means internet access in her store, which serves as a gathering place for tribal members seeking social services clustered in the town and picking up groceries after work.
“This is a complete game-changer,” Moss said of the targeted investment and casino announcements. “Day-to-day life is sometimes a struggle. There are not a lot of things around here.”
Robin Kennedy, the tribe’s technology advancement officer, said she’d be working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to hook up fiber-optic wires and potentially build towers that could bring high-speed internet services to the tribe’s population of roughly 2,000 people.
“We have residential in all these areas that don’t have access to stable internet and phone service,” Kennedy said. “I know a few have said that they would like to be able to take online courses, or just in general, to have internet for everyday use.”
Jewell said communication infrastructure was “fundamental” for the tribe, especially with the rampant wildfires that scorched acres on and around the reservation in recent years. She praised the efforts of the Spokane Tribe in preventing further destruction through their stewardship of the forests, something she said Congress could learn from.
“We had areas that were not as devastated, because the tribal communities had done a good job of thinning the forests and managing the landscape,” Jewell said.
Carol Evans, chairwoman of the Tribal Business Council, called Jewell’s visit a milestone.
“We’ve not had such a big visit, only the governor, or maybe her flying over on a helicopter because we have a disaster. Then they’re flying over to make sure we’re OK,” Evans said. “This is something good. She’s here to help us.”
The ceremonial dance wasn’t the only bit of Spokane culture Jewell ate up. Darlene Garcia, a lifelong tribal member, sat handing out pieces of dried elk meat roasted over cottonwood to the secretary, schoolchildren and other tribal members enticed by the sweet-smelling smoke.
Garcia said the week’s announcements signified “a new road opening up” for the tribe. She said she hoped opposition to the casino plans would end harmoniously. Garcia specifically mentioned the disappointment expressed by the Kalispel Tribe, which operates Northern Quest Casino.
“My deepest prayer is for peace,” Garcia said. “There’s enough out there for everybody. I hope we can come back together as one.”
Garcia said she hoped money and programs would be geared toward teaching young members of the tribe their culture and history, including the Salish language.
“A lot of people don’t know who their family is, or where they came from,” she said. “We need to get back to teaching that.”
After finishing the dance in the Wellpinit gymnasium, Jewell accepted a microphone from Evans and promised the students she’d send word back to “her boss,” Obama, about the tribe and its plans.
“Thank you for making me happy today,” Jewell told the students. “This is a great week for the Spokane Tribe.”
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