The Swinomish chairman has achieved national prominence as casinos fuel tribal wealth and influence.

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SKAGIT COUNTY — It’s not Brian Cladoosby’s day. Gorgeous and sunny, yes. Blue-green Skagit River waters swirl around his Boston Whaler fishing boat. A breeze rustles riverbank alders. Swallows swoop overhead and snowy mountains peek over Fir Island. But Brian Cladoosby is getting skunked.

He’s been on the river from 6 a.m. until well after noon, on the second day of an early-May king-salmon season for his Swinomish Tribe. And not a fish in his net.

Brian Cladoosby often wears a woven cedar hat, traditional to Coast Salish tribes, during ceremonies and in his role as president of the National Congress of American Indians.  (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)
Brian Cladoosby often wears a woven cedar hat, traditional to Coast Salish tribes, during ceremonies and in his role as president of the National Congress of American Indians. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

Now a sunken log or some other snag — he cheekily calls them “hookers” — grabs his gill net and won’t let go. With his brother Marty, he finally yanks like a crazed dentist pulling a stubborn molar. The net comes up — in shreds.

“Another hooker! And no fish. I’ve never had this problem — ever!” he cries in disgust, turning his boat toward shore.

A fishless day on the Skagit River is what Cladoosby (“KLA-duhs-bee”) has struggled to stave off for much of his political life. And here it was, in the midst of what former Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Cladoosby fan who has sat across from him at negotiating tables, calls the peak of his career.

Chairman since 1997 of Skagit County’s Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, and in his second year as president of the influential National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), Cladoosby, 56, has become among the most prominent Indian leaders in America.

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Since the death last year of the Nisqually Tribe’s Billy Frank Jr., he may also be among the fiercest protectors of Northwest salmon.

His rise coincided with more than 25 years of Northwest tribes’ financial gains after courts and Congress gave Indian casinos a green light in 1988. Resulting newfound wealth — and key legal victories in fishing and water rights that it helped finance — have boosted political and cultural influence for tribes across the Northwest.

In 2015, 160 years since rifle-toting and smallpox-bringing settlers persuaded Puget Sound-area tribes to sign the Point Elliott Treaty ceding most of their ancestral lands, you might say it’s payback time. And Brian Cladoosby is leading the way.

How tribes came back

“My own personal opinion is I wish it was something else than gaming [that built tribal wealth], but nothing else has worked,” Cladoosby says as he sips root beer in his office across Swinomish Channel from the town of La Conner. His dark hair, with strands of silver, spills in a braid down his back.

He recalls being “floored” by the late Vi Hilbert, a respected tribal elder who was once named a Washington State Living Treasure, when he asked what she thought of Indian casinos. Striking a conspiratorial tone, he quotes her: “It’s going to be our chance to get back at the white man!”

By 2014, tribal-casino income had ballooned to a net of $2.2 billion annually from about 30 casinos operated by tribes across Washington.

“Gaming has allowed us to go from being a debt manager to an asset manager for the first time ever,” says Cladoosby, who sits on the Washington Indian Gaming Association’s executive committee. “These are the days our ancestors prayed for.”

He sees his tribe rising out of a pit of alcoholism, drug abuse “and other learned bad behavior” dating to the late 19th century, when the government sent Indian children to boarding schools to unlearn their own culture in what he calls the “Save the man, kill the Indian” policy.

Paradise lost

“One hundred fifty years ago, this was utopia — with no (social) classes, no rich, no poor, no starving people. Everyone lived together in 1,000-foot longhouses, and they knew the difference between right and wrong … Right out in front of them here,” Cladoosby says, pointing to the channel, “they had salmon 365 days of the year.”

From boarding schools like one his grandfather attended came tales of physical, emotional and sexual abuse that haunted Indian families for generations.

 

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His family wasn’t immune.

“Both me and my wife, growing up, saw and witnessed things no child should ever, ever have to see,” he muses.

He remembers drinking beer as a small child with his father. He recounts the loss of friends and family to alcoholism. He proclaims that he quit drinking in 1989.

“It takes two generations to break a cycle,” Cladoosby says. “For the first time in 100 years, my grandkids are being raised in a home truly drug- and alcohol- and abuse-free,” he says, referring to the two children of his eldest daughter, LaVonne, who lives with her husband in nearby Shelter Bay, a stylish, 420-acre subdivision and marina on tribal land.

Among many benefits his 945-member tribe enjoys from annual casino income he pegs at $15 million — plus revenue from fish processing, gas stations, a golf course and more — he cites a medical center, dental clinic, full-ride scholarships for college, and no-down-payment home loans for tribal members who prove themselves drug- and alcohol-free.

For the first time in 100 years, my grandkids are being raised in a home truly drug- and alcohol- and abuse-free.”

“We just got thanked by a girl who graduated after the tribe spent $130,000 on her University of Washington education,” Cladoosby says. “That was not an expense, that was an investment in our community.”

A homebody

Born in Skagit County, he’s never lived farther from his 10,000-acre reservation than 10 miles away in Mount Vernon, where he earned a two-year degree from Skagit Valley College.

He now lives in one of the largest houses in Swinomish Village, built two years ago after his wife of 37 years, Nina, picked the plans off the Internet.

But he grew up in one of the humble, 800-square-foot New Deal-era homes that dominate the older part of his village. His 82-year-old father, Mike Cladoosby, still resides in one, a couple doors away, its front adorned by two totem poles and a rustic, hand-painted American flag.

Mike Cladoosby’s Indian name is Kel-Kahl-Tsoot, same as his great-grandfather who put his “X” on the Point Elliott Treaty for the Swinomish in 1855.

Brian’s Indian name, bestowed by Hilbert, a tribal elder, is Spee-Pots, meaning Little Bear. His family name was originally “Cla-Doos-Bid” in their Lushootseed language, but — shades of Ellis Island — when an uncle went off to the Korean War in the 1950s, the U.S. military made it Cladoosby.

Brian Cladoosby played like a little bear for La Conner High School (Class of ’77), where he went out for baseball, basketball and football.

“It’s B League, dude,” so there are lots of opportunities, even if you’re not a big guy, Cladoosby says. “I was a yelling, John McEnroe-type in high-school sports.”

Now his game — and he’s a fanatic — is golf.

Loved — and not

Many of his own tribe love him, as evidenced when he presided recently over his village’s annual Blessing of the Fleet / First Salmon Ceremony, snitching good bits from the salmon grill and schmoozing with tribal elders. But to some Skagit County residents, he acknowledges, “I’m a four-letter word.”

He took a high profile this spring on issues such as the tribe’s new tax on homes owned by non-Indians on tribal land, including many in Shelter Bay. The tribe levied the tax after a federal court ruling involving another tribe said such taxes should not go to counties.

An oil train with cars as far as the eye can see crosses Swinomish Channel. Cladoosby has spearheaded a lawsuit to bar such trains from tribal land. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)
An oil train with cars as far as the eye can see crosses Swinomish Channel. Cladoosby has spearheaded a lawsuit to bar such trains from tribal land. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

Some nontribal homeowners don’t like paying into a government in which they have no say. Cladoosby says the court merely corrected a longtime wrong that had cheated tribes of income.

He also generated headlines by spearheading a federal lawsuit to stop 100-car Bakken oil-field trains from crossing his reservation, which he says violates a 1990s tribal contract with what is now BNSF Railway.

Some locals resent his stands to protect salmon, around which he says his tribe’s culture has revolved since beyond memory.

“One river in the Lower 48 states has all wild-salmon species still surviving, and that’s the Skagit River, and we’re going to stand up and be the voice for salmon in the water,” Cladoosby says. “If someone is breaking the law impacting water quality, or degrading the habitat, we’re going to stand up to them.”

His tribe has done that through lawsuits such as one that prompted a 2013 state Supreme Court ruling that, in the name of preserving water for salmon streams, effectively shut down new well-drilling for homes in parts of rural Skagit County.

One affected landowner, Zachary Barborinas, wrote a letter, still posted on the Skagit County Republicans’ Web page, in which he alleged Cladoosby broke laws in July 2012 by selling salmon to nontribal fishermen and offering to sell to state Fish & Wildlife agents. Barborinas wrote, “The salmon we’re talking about here are the excuse for a lot of misery and expense for a great number of farmers and landowners in the Skagit Valley, and much of that stems directly from Chairman Cladoosby.”

Cladoosby says he “took my medicine” and paid a $50 fine to tribal-fishery officers.

Will Honea, chief civil deputy for the Skagit County prosecutor, has long experience negotiating with the tribe. He sees the strict stance on salmon habitat as clout-building for Cladoosby and castigates him for well restrictions that created “financial havoc” for many hapless landowners.

National Congress of American Indians (NCAI)

Founded: 1944

President’s term: Two years, with a limit of two consecutive terms

Members: More than 250 tribal governments and thousands of individuals, out of 566 federally recognized Indian Nations in the United States.

Indian population across the U.S.: 5.2 million (2013 estimate, including individuals of mixed race)

What NCAI says about itself “The oldest, largest and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization serving the broad interests of tribal governments and communities.” ncai.org

Stated mission
  • Protect and enhance treaty and sovereign rights.
  • Secure traditional laws, cultures and ways of life for tribal descendants.
  • Promote a common understanding of the rightful place of tribes in the family of American governments.
  • Improve the quality of life for native communities and peoples.

President’s duties Presiding over NCAI conventions, liaising with member tribes, delivering annual State of Indian Nations address, guiding policy, representing tribes in hearings before U.S. Congress and governmental agencies and ceremonial role with officials at all levels.

He characterizes Cladoosby as a litigation-happy, “no compromise” negotiator.

Counters Cladoosby, “We have a very high standard for going to court: You either have to break the law or break an agreement with us.”

Gregoire, the former Washington governor (to whose political campaigns tribes donated generously), admires Cladoosby’s “passionate style and personal charisma,” though tribes took more than they gave in battles with the state over issues such as shellfish rights.

“He’s tough, but he’s pragmatic, he looks for creative new solutions to longstanding issues,” she says. He will compromise, “but once you get to his bottom line, that’s it. In that way, we might be cut from the same cloth.”

Marty Loesch, former intergovernmental-affairs director for the Swinomish who went on to be Gregoire’s chief of staff, cites three key guiding forces for Cladoosby: “His faith, his family and his commitment to tribal sovereignty.”

On the national scene, Cladoosby has met with President Obama, cabinet members and congressional leaders. There, “It’s a matter of delivering the message (of tribal interests) and finding common ground,” says W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Olympic Peninsula’s Jamestown S’Klallam tribe, who was NCAI president in the late 1990s. “He’s good at that, and very respectful, very spiritually grounded.”

Family-values vote

Back on the Skagit River, Cladoosby sits back in his rubber waders, his head covered by a ball cap and black bandanna, and reminisces about the 2013 election in Oklahoma in which he gained the NCAI presidency. He won by only 25 votes out of some 18,000. He stands for re-election this fall.

“Oklahoma is my second-favorite state now!” he says, recalling how tribes there liked his family values and his religious background as an every-week-to-church Seventh-day Adventist.

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Frequently in conversation — and at political lecterns — Cladoosby thanks “the Creator,” thus painting himself as a humbly religious man. However, were he measured by the seven deadly sins, some Cladoosby-watchers might say pride — or at least ambition — blurs that image.

“I think (the Swinomish) have pursued a very deliberate strategy to use water and salmon issues to extend tribal sovereignty,” says Honea, of the Skagit County Prosecutor’s Office.

But many give Cladoosby points for having a sense of humor amid it all. From one of his campaign speeches, preserved on YouTube, he seriously admonishes an Indian audience, “Always remember: You cannot leave footprints in the sands of life by sitting on your butt.”

Then he quickly draws laughter by impishly adding, “And who wants to leave buttprints in the sands of life?”

Brian Cladoosby walks with his grandson, Nathanael Long, 2, and daughter Mary Cladoosby, in Swinomish Village. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)
Brian Cladoosby walks with his grandson, Nathanael Long, 2, and daughter Mary Cladoosby, in Swinomish Village. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)