Successful casinos that have become recession-proof job creators, and a bigger effort than ever to count residents on the reservations have resulted in a bump in populations of Native Americans on Indian reservations across Washington, the 2010 census shows.

Share story

PORT MADISON INDIAN RESERVATION — As some tribes prosper, a renaissance is under way that’s boosted the number of Indian people living on reservations across Washington, the 2010 census shows.

Chuck Deam, vice chairman of the Suquamish tribal council, was the tribe’s first employee in 1969, and he remembers that time well: “There was nothing. My office was the back of my truck. I had a phone, but no place to plug it in.”

Today, the tribe has more than 1,000 members, with about half of them living on the reservation. It employs about 1,200 people in its government, casino and business enterprises. The tribe is the third-largest employer in Kitsap County, behind only the feds and the hospital.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

And so it goes around Washington, where successful casino tribes have become recession-proof job creators. That trend, plus a bigger effort than ever to count residents on Indian reservations, has resulted in a bump in populations of Native Americans on reservations across Washington, the 2010 census shows.

At Suquamish, the count of Indian people living on the reservation is up 47 percent over the 2000 census. So many have returned home to Suquamish, or chosen to stay there, that tribal housing is in chronic short supply.

The increase in Indian people counted on the Suquamish reservation wasn’t a surprise to anyone there. For the tribe, like others in Washington with successful casinos and other business ventures, including commercial fishing operations, economic opportunity has provided jobs to come home to, and finally, enough professional employment for young people to stay at home and still pursue their careers.

Reservations that are home to some of the most successful casino operations — Tulalip, Puyallup, Muckleshoot, Swinomish and Lummi — together saw an overall population increase of 19 percent over the 2000 census, higher than the 10 percent increase in population of Native Americans on all reservations across Washington.

The big bump at Suquamish also is due, people there say, to just plain working harder at the count. No bureaucratic sleepwalk, this was a house-to-house campaign.

“It was a big blitz, to stand up and be counted,” said Wayne George, executive director for the Suquamish tribe.

“We decided it was time to be recognized; it’s very important to us. It was the first time I remember being counted for anything, and I have lived here all my life.”

Counting everyone

Indian people have historically been undercounted in the census, for a variety of reasons. Poverty meant living on somebody’s couch. Many people moved around for seasonal employment. And there’s lingering suspicion of anyone coming from outside the community showing up at the door with a form to sign.

But with everything from electoral districts to federal government programs and services allotted in part on the basis of head count, the stakes are high to get everyone counted.

At Suquamish, they built on efforts from the last census. Bradley George led a 13-person census team made up entirely of people from the local community, tracking down residents whose homes don’t necessarily show up on maps or assessor’s lists, and likely would have been missed by outsiders.

They were undaunted, going back to some homes six times. “I’ve lived here all my life. We know a lot of folks and how to make contact,” George said.

A tribal member and go-to guy on the rez for fireworks in the summer and Christmas trees in the winter, George and the rest of the team worked this census count hard, deploying their local knowledge to find people never counted before.

“They felt comfortable with someone they knew,” George said. “Everyone in the community knows me. For the tough ones, it was, ‘Send Bradley.’

“We went down every street, every side road. It was just persistency; we went at different times of day, after hours, weekends.”

A turning point

For Washington tribes, the uptick in population is a tiny reversal of history. Once dynasties numbering thousands strong, controlling vast holdings that stretched across present-day Washington state and beyond, the tribes have survived in numbers that are but fractions of their former size.

In all, only 33,047 people identified themselves as Indians living on Washington reservation lands in 2010, up from 30,096 people in 2000 — not enough people, in either case, to fill even half of Qwest Field.

Those respondents represent Indians of any tribe — and their identity is proclaimed by checking a box; it is not cross-verified with tribal enrollment lists. Respondents also could declare themselves to be Native American or Alaska Natives alone, or in combination with another race. To compute population comparisons between 2010 and 2000, The Seattle Times included each choice.

In all, the percentage of people who identify themselves as American Indians or Alaska Natives doesn’t crack 3 percent of Washington’s total population. Across the country, there are 61,582 people enrolled in Washington tribes, according to a 2010 count by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The largest was Yakama, with 10,153 members. The smallest was Stillaguamish, with 200 people.

In Snohomish County, while other businesses struggled, the Tulalip Tribes saw the most successful year ever at their casino last year, tribal treasurer Chuck James noted in an address at a dinner celebrating the tribe’s charitable giving, which totaled $5.3 million in fiscal year 2010. The Tulalip Tribes are the third-largest employer in Snohomish County.

Tribes are investing

While state and local governments have been cutting back, tribes are investing in government programs during the recession, from environmental cleanup and preservation work to fisheries enhancement and social services — including programs and schools used by the non-Indian community.

Leonard Forsman, chairman at Suquamish, said his tribe is reaping the benefit of planning and strategy: They were careful not to overbuild, and to grow sustainably.

At Suquamish, the casino notched year-over-year growth, even during the recession. There is work on the reservation for any tribal member who wants it, and full-time jobs include 100 percent employer-paid medical benefits. When gas prices went up last year, the tribe kicked in $40 a week for gas for employees.

The tribe has launched a construction company, bought the upscale Kiana Lodge in Poulsbo and the White Horse Golf Course, along with nearly 160 residential lots surrounding it. It built a new dock and constructed a community house called The House of Awakened Culture on the waterfront, filling it with original art.

The Suquamish opened three tribal retail enterprises and steadily bought land, expanding from about 100 acres owned by the tribe back in 1988 to about 1,200 acres today. A new museum is in the planning stages.

The tribe also is investing in its people. The Suquamish have opened an early learning center for tribal children, and the tribe is sending about 30 of its members to college this year with full scholarships and living-expense stipends.

The result is young people such as Kate Ahvakana, whom the tribe sent to school for her bachelor’s degree in art. Today, instead of working somewhere like a gallery in downtown Seattle, she has graduated and come home to work for her tribe, helping to lead a class and research project on the use of traditional cultural practices to maintain wellness and sobriety.

Designed, taught and used by tribal members, the class has meaning for her beyond a paycheck: “It’s that sense that you want to go home to help. It’s really important. We are all connected here.”

Michael Zaiss, 29, was laying pavement for tribal housing on Elders Lane on a recent weekday. A laborer on the crew, Zaiss said he felt fortunate to be able to give back to his tribe.

“Our way of life is older than America,” Zaiss said. “To be part of being able to keep that going is very humbling.”

About 40 people are on the housing waiting list, said Scott Crowell, a Suquamish tribal member and its director of community development. A city planner by training, he recently showed off a new housing development, including speed bumps to tame traffic, enclosed bus shelters and playgrounds. Federal grants wouldn’t pay for those extras — but the tribe could afford them with casino proceeds.

Tribal crews build all the homes, creating more jobs.

For tribal elders who grew up on a very different Suquamish reservation, today’s possibilities are just what they worked for.

“We used to talk about ‘What if,’ ” said Deam, Suquamish tribal official. “And all that ‘What if’ came true.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.