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Kalispel Tribe’s Glen Nenema has spent four decades in charge, and he’s not done yet

By Fred Willenbrock For The Spokesman-Review

USK, Wash. – When most people reach 65 they start thinking about retiring, especially when they’ve spent almost 37 years at the same job.

But Glen Nenema, the longest-serving tribal chairman in the nation, said in a recent interview that he’s running for re-election to a three-year term on the Kalispel Business Council in June.

“I’m running,” Nenema said without hesitation in his office near Usk.

Nenema has worked for the tribe for 44 years. He was elected chairman of the Kalispel Business Council in June 1980, when he was 28 years old, after serving on the council for several years.

“I think we wouldn’t be where we are without Glen,” said Dave Bonga, the Kalispel Tribe’s senior tribal attorney.

The council represents a small but growing tribe of 480, and governs a complex mix of health care, law enforcement, environmental improvement projects and businesses worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The Kalispel Tribe employs close to 2,000 people, buys more than $4 million in goods and services each month and has donated more than $16 million to the community since 2000, according to the tribe.

The flagship business is the Northern Quest Casino and Resort. The business plan started in 1994 when the federal government granted the Kalispels 40 acres of trust land in Airway Heights. They were among only eight tribes in the nation to be granted a second reservation for the sole purpose of economic development – and it was one of Nenema’s first major accomplishments as chairman.

“It’s a good day to be a Kalispel,” Nenema said at a 2007 groundbreaking for a major addition to the casino.

‘He does what he said he would do’

There are days at the office that are challenging, Nenema said recently. But he won’t retire just yet, because there are some things he still wants to accomplish.

If the election process follows the past, about 200 tribal members will quietly elect him to the council by placing a ballot in a box in either Pend Orielle County or Airway Heights. Voting by mail is not permitted, and a third of tribal members live in other parts of the country.

Ray Pierre III, the Kalispel Business Council’s vice chairman, said Nenema has had challengers but recent elections were never close.

Nenema said that when he started working for the tribe, he did everything from maintenance to shoveling snow. But early on, he eyed a leadership role.

“I didn’t like some of the things going on,” Nenema said. “I threw my name in for a council seat.”

He won. Then he was asked a short time later to resign and he did. Nenema said the other leaders probably didn’t like some of his ideas or attitude.

But Nenema tried again and was elected to the council. When the chairman suddenly resigned, packed up and left the reservation, the board asked young Nenema to lead them.

“They must have liked some of my ideas the second time,” Nenema said

“I can’t tell you the number of council members I’ve served with,” Nenema said. “They came and went.”

There wasn’t a lot of money for the tribe to work with in his early leadership years.

The winter of 1996-97 was especially bad, Nenema said.

“I came to work and just shoveled snow with the few that worked here,” Nenema said.

Today the council’s responsibilities have skyrocketed. Along with the Pend Oreille County reservation land, the council manages thousands of acres in Idaho and Washington either for its businesses or for environmental improvement work.

In essence, Nenema is the leader of all that is Kalispel in this region – and that’s substantial today. This wasn’t always so.

Though the tribe’s native lands had stretched 200 miles along the Pend Oreille River from Montana to Washington, the reservation was established by executive order in 1914 on a tiny piece of flood plain and mountainside along the Pend Oreille River. It could never provide economic support for the tribe.

In the 1960s, there were only a few houses on the reservation that had running water and one telephone for the entire tribe. The average annual income was about $1,400.

Many people within the tribe and outside agree that the Kalispel Business Council, with Nenema’s steady leadership, has had a critical role in taking a tribe without hope to one with a vision and bright future.

Ask Nenema to list his top accomplishments as a council member and chairman over the past four decades, however, and he replies, “Hard for me to say I did this or I did that … I’m always just considering the future.”

Bonga, the senior tribal attorney, is a nationally recognized expert on tribal law. He attends most of the tribal business council meetings and has been a close adviser to Nenema and the council.

Bonga said of Nenema, “Basically he does what he said he would do. People respect him for that.” And of the tribal council: “They talk about things and then get it done.”

Under Nenema’s leadership, the council developed a formal organizational structure and secured the funds needed to operate a stable government, using federal, state and local grants, service contracts and enterprises.

The council is responsible for creating new positions, protecting tribal interests, making or changing laws, overseeing business development and creating short- and long-term goals.

Pierre, the council vice-chairman, said council work isn’t always easy because of all the financial, legal and family issues members deal with now.

But “Glen is the most level-headed person I know,” Pierre said. “He looks at all sides.”

He added, “It’s an honor to sit with the boss (Nenema) these past 10 years on Tuesdays. I’m a better leader, father, community member from just hanging with him on Tuesdays.”

His sobriety was the turning point

Shirley Sandoval, 66, was a council member in the late 1980s before the casino was built. She moved away from the reservation and now works for Northern Quest. She said Nenema was a natural leader from the start.

“He always thought about the future of the tribe,” Sandoval said. “Even before the casino, he was going after grants.”

Jim Sattleen, 64, grew up in Cusick across the river from the reservation and played basketball, football and baseball with Nenema in school. Though not a tribal member, Sattleen has worked for the tribe for the past 36 years.

Nenema’s “calm rubs off on you,” Sattleen said. “He thinks things through.”

Sattleen said they both didn’t know their fathers and he believes the tribal elders took young Nenema under their wings and saw his potential. Nenema’s grandfather, Frank Nenema, worked for the U.S. Forest Service and was a steady influence on Glen, Sattleen said. Nenema’s 82-year-old mother lives near his office and home on the reservation.

There was a quality of life difference between where Sattleen lived in Cusick and where Nenema lived on the reservation. Very few tribal members, including Nenema, went on to higher education like Sattleen did. There was a high rate of unemployment and alcoholism on the reservation.

Sattleen said no one who grew up near the reservation in those days thought the economy of the tribe would improve so dramatically.

“Glen was the right person for the job,” Sattleen said. “Glen is probably the most caring and respected person in the community.”

Yet Nenema openly talks about a turning point in his life – one that Bonga believes also was a turning point for the tribe.

“From 1978 to 1988, I was not sober,” Nenema said.

He was lecturing young members of the tribe on sobriety and heading to the bar to drink. He realized that wasn’t right.

“In 1988, I become sober,” he said. “It’s been 29 years.”

Eradicating substance abuse by tribal members has been a top priority for Nenema and the council even before the casino revenue started flowing in 2000. That goal continues today.

Nenema said they recognize that improving the health and well-being of tribal members is still a big challenge.

“I’ve seen a little change, ” he said. “But I’m not shouting success, or giving up.”

The council and its growing staff have created a complex network of counseling, medical care and law enforcement to improve the overall wellness of tribal members.

“We realized that the community of health and the community of drug culture were clashing,” Nenema said. “That needed to change.”

Nenema said there have been successes from the many programs they’ve implemented, expanded and modified over the years. The reservation’s $22 million Camas Center for Community Wellness opened in 2008 and offers a medical and dental clinic, a daycare, and fitness and recreation facilities. The tribe subsidizes the operational costs.

Along with his sobriety he has found a healthy lifestyle that rewards him with increased energy. His short, dark hair has streaks of gray, but he says he is in good heath.

“Listen to yourself,” he said about his personal wellness philosophy. “I wasn’t feeling well – I was tired.”

He changed his eating habits and exercise routine. He also receives regular acupuncture treatment.

Nenema lost his wife in 2007. But he lives with his significant other on the reservation, and between them they have many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to enjoy life with, he said.

Faction wanted to expand tribal membership

Even with the threat of more competition from the Spokane Tribe’s planned casino and resort on the horizon, Nenema said he just concentrates on how to make the Kalispels’ future brighter.

The council is always evaluating options for their business operations, he said.

Since 2000, the tribe has expanded its enterprises to include Northern Quest Resort & Casino; two Fatburger franchise restaurants; two Chevron fuel stations and convenience stores; the Kalispel Golf and Country Club in north Spokane; a restaurant in Cusick called Crossroads Restaurant; the Camas Center for Community Wellness; Kalispel Linen Services, a commercial laundry facility that contracts with Providence Health Care; and Kalispel Upholstery Services.

Curt Holmes, 43, is the executive director of public and government affairs for the tribe. He served 14 years on the tribal council but lost in a recent election.

“Glen has been very important to me personally as I was only 23 years old when first elected to tribal council,” Holmes said. “Having someone like Glen as a mentor with such determination, patience and vision proved invaluable.

“I think he has been re-elected so many times for many reasons, but I know one thing for sure, he is a good listener,” Holmes said. “To be a good leader you must know your people; to know your people you must listen.”

Holmes also said he feels the tribe’s success can be attributed to Nenema’s vision.

But Nenema’s success hasn’t come without challenges.

“There was a time I thought things were going backwards,” Nenema said, reflecting on the firm leadership needed to direct the funds generated by the tribe’s various business ventures to the community instead of increasing individual disbursements.

Some wanted to expand membership in the tribe by including more family members with fractional Kalispel ancestry. At the time, it was determined that an additional 500 people could claim membership and receive disbursements.

Nenema said the council realized that such an expansion could cripple the tribe’s treatment programs and improvements.

“Meetings got intense,” Nenema said. “Some were not coming here to promote the vision but coming for the money.”

The council members stood their ground and denied changes to the enrollment requirements.

It was hard, he said. He, like other tribal members, has relatives in neighboring tribes and communities.

But he said one of the proponents of opening membership at the time finally met him when he was riding his ATV along the river with his dog. She came up to him and said she was sorry – he was right – it wasn’t good for the tribe.

Pierre said the membership debate continues today. But, he said, many tribal leaders from around the country have said they wish they had used the Kalispel’s financial model from the beginning.

“The elders said lead by example,” Nenema said.

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