Denny Hurtado: Addressing Tough Governance Issues

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Native Nations Institute
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Former Skokomish Tribal Nation Chairman Denny Hurtado discusses how he, his fellow leaders and his nation exercised its sovereignty in order to navigate past some tough governance challenges to fund their government, restore their land base, and protect their natural resources.

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Native Nations
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Hurtado, Denny. "Addressing Tough Governance Issues." Emerging Leaders Seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. March 26, 2009. Presentation.

"Good morning. I'll tell a joke at the end too [because] that's part of who we are as people -- humor. I see people I know too, people from Washington. I see people from the Chehalis Tribe back there and they're close to me and close to us. We're only like 30 miles apart. When I go speak, education is my passion [because] I think that's a key thing that as tribal people that we need to really focus on that, but I'll talk a little bit about that later.

But I'd like to introduce myself. My Indian name is [Skokomish language] and the short definition of that is that when you come out of a hot house into the cold air you see that breathe of air. And that's kind of what the definition of my name means, [Skokomish language]. I got it from my great-uncle Dr. Charlie. My cousins like to think it's hot air and I like to think it's fresh air. And so we go back and forth, back and forth about that all the time.

But I'd like to talk about two things. One is the fish tax issue, when I first started becoming involved with the tribe. And the other one is about a lawsuit that we filed against the City of Tacoma for first damming our river, and then diverting the whole water out of the north fork of the watershed. Those are the two things I want to talk about real quick [because] we only have 20 minutes. But I'm also a recovering tribal chairman. And it's kind of like that [because] there's a lot of demands on you and your life and it's a hard job to deal with. Especially with us, when we started. 

Our small tribe -- it's a small tribe in Washington State, population of 900 people, small land base of 5,000 acres in God's country, a beautiful place. And when the Boldt Decision passed in Washington State, [it] was a big issue. The tribes were fighting for their right to fish in their usual and accustomed fishing grounds and the fishing business in Washington State was big business. And so of course the state didn't want us to have that right. And so we went to court and fought for that right and won that right. And the right guaranteed us 50% of the fish in our usual and  accustomed  fishing grounds, which meant on and off reservation. And so that was the beginning of the fish wars and a lot of racism came out. There was bumper stickers that said "˜Save a Salmon, Kill an Indian.' And it just happened recently, too, when the Makah's got their whale. There was bumper stickers up there, they were saying "˜Save a Whale, Kill a Makah.' And so we have to deal with these issues all the time of racism and ignorance. So once that passed then our people started going fishing off the reservation, buying big boats, making big money [because] fishing is big money, especially salmon.

And so when Boldt was decided the feds gave us money to help us manage our fishery. However, they never give us enough money to succeed. They only give us enough money to fail. And so we had to start thinking about ways to supplement what little money we got from the federal government. And so we started talking about, "˜Well, let's pass a fish tax.' And oh boy, that was no fun at all. [Because] Indians back then, probably still today, say, "˜We're Indians, we don't have to pay taxes. Why do we have to pay taxes and act like Europeans?' We're thinking, well, we're having these problems out there because it expanded our territory immensely. Because before we had to fish on the reservation, now we can go in our usual and accustomed fishing grounds, which meant we had to cover a larger territory to enforce our regulations that we put out for our tribal members. And then we started hearing issues about, "˜Oh, yeah, everybody's outlawing out there,' which means they're fishing illegally -- they're fishing out of season and what not. And so we're saying, "˜Hey, if we don't control our fishery, then that'll give the government a right to come in and say, "˜See, we told you people. You guys can't manage your fishery. We need to really rethink this and maybe go back and do something different.''

And so as the council, we started talking about imposing this fish tax. So we developed this ordinance which was a five percent fish tax, wasn't really much, but it was a lot of money [because] people were making a lot of money. So we figure well, we can make some money to help supplement our fishery program. So people were just complaining and I'd get threats. Back then, this was in the late '70s and Boldt was decided in 1975. And back then, like you said, it was different. We would go party and that's who we were and it wasn't a good thing. But one time I walked into this bar, and there's this little old lady, God bless her soul, she's gone now. She's like 4 foot 10, but she was one of the most radical people in our tribe. And she came up to me and she goes, "˜I'm going to kill you.' And I'm like, "˜Well, okay. If you do, my mom's going to kill you.' And people feared her because she had killed two of her husbands. And I actually feared her, but I had to stand up and say, 'Be strong.'

So then everybody refused to pay the tax. Not one person paid the tax. But before that, I think a key element of trying to get ordinance passed on your reservations is that you have to educate people why you want to do something and what is the purpose and what is the goal. And so I started thinking about it. 'Well, okay, we need to really start educating our members about what are we going to use this five percent of money we're going to get for?' So we developed this plan, and it was like 50 percent would go directly to fisheries department for whatever they wanted to do, enhancement or whatever. And then 25 percent would go to enforcement because we needed to hire another law enforcement officer so they can go out and make sure that our people weren't outlawing. And then the other 25 percent, and we did a...we had a general council meeting and we're asking what is important to our people. And so always education and elders come at the top and goes like that -- treaty rights. And so I figure, well, 'Why don't we dedicate 25 percent of this money to education and elders?' So like 25 percent of that went to the education, for education purposes and for elders, supporting elders' program. And it was still, people were okay with that, "˜Yeah, okay. That's good. We can kind of support that.' But in the end, when it came time -- looking at all the people fishing, and the majority of our people are fishermen -- nobody paid the tax. I'm like, well, okay. Well, let's just wait until next fishing season.

Next fishing season came rolling around. They came to fisheries to get their permit, tribal fishing card. And so we said, "˜Okay.' First one came we said, "˜Oh, you owe, $2,800 before you can get your fishing permit.' And they're like, "˜What?! Nah, we ain't...' "˜Well, don't pay it then. Next.' And it went like that, and pretty soon everybody realized that they had to get this permit and pay their tax first in order to get their permit so they could exercise their fishing right. And that's kind of how it went down. Everybody paid their tax 'cause there was a lot of money to be made, but they couldn't make that money unless they got their fishing permit. And it was a big issue. It was a big step for us, because we're so engrained in not wanting to pay taxes and not wanting to be like Europeans and not this and that. But I think that in order to supplement your tribal governments, you have to take bold stands and go forward and look at it in a different way. But it was challenging, it was scary, but you have to stand your ground and that's how things get done.

The other issue I'm going to talk about is what's called the Cushman case. I dedicated about 25 years of my life to this suit. Cushman was a suit about the north fork of our river. The City of Tacoma in the 1920s had went in there and completely dammed the north fork of the river and diverted all of the water out of the river down these big pipes so they could generate power at the powerhouse. And it was just, their whole focus was just power generation. What that did to our reservation was that because of the flows that that north fork created in the river, over time the riverbed rose like 10-15 feet and then our reservation started getting flooded, our septic systems were becoming corrupted. And so we thought, 'Well, we really need to focus on doing something about this.'

When we started this process, it was like David and Goliath. Here's Skokomish, this little tribe with very little money and very little political clout fighting Goliath, which was the City of Tacoma, which had deep pockets, which were connected to all the politicians -- Norm Dicks being one of them, now the chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

When we were pursuing this suit, we realized that we really had to make sure that we did all the science. What I've learned from this suit, I've learned more from being involved in this suit than going to college for seven years, because you're so immersed in it and you learn about hydrology, anthropology, economics; all this stuff was wrapped up into this one suit.

I thought, 'Well, how am I going to sell this to the council and to the people more importantly, the general council.' So what I decided, I thought, 'Well, the more you get people involved in the process, the better off you are because that way you're more accountable and you're more transparent.' Those are two key things that as tribal leaders we need to make sure we do, that we're accountable and that we're transparent so that the membership can see exactly what we're doing and how we're doing it. [Because] that's when a lot of rumors start to boil up and if they don't know what we're doing, then they start saying, "˜Oh, they're just going to get the money and do whatever they want with it and not listen to us.'

So I had planned to start this what's called the 'Rights Protection Committee.' And the way that committee was designed was that we would get members from key families on the reservation to be part of this committee. That way everybody and everyone of their families had someone in there to represent their issues and concerns. And it was great for a while and then that was like 15-17 years. And then I got married and I decided, 'Well, I'm going to come off council and dedicate my time to my wife. So after a couple years, after that then the Rights Protection Committee kind of went away. In the meantime, we were ordered [into] court mediation to try and resolve this issue out of court.

And so just recently, last few months ago, we came up with a settlement package to settle this suit that lasted 80 years. I really never thought I would see the day when we would settle it. I didn't think it was going to happen, and it wasn't going to happen because we had a general council meeting and I started hearing rumors, "˜Well, the council over there, we don't trust them,' and you know how it goes. I'm speaking to the choir and they don't always trust us. And so there was going to be a vote at the general council meeting to not accept the proposal. I was looking at the proposal and we wanted, of course we always want more. But as leaders we need to figure out, 'Well, is it worth it to take that crap shoot and go to court and might not get much or less, or you might get more?,' you just never know. But in looking at the settlement package, part of it was getting 1,400 acres of prime land back to our reservation. And that really, to me, that was the main thing for me. The money I could live without, but I could use it too, but that wasn't really the purpose of our suit. The purpose of our suit was to get the water back into the river and that was a big part of our suit and we've always stayed that course.

And so I think you have to be resilient and persistent and stay your course all the way to the very end. [Because] in the midst of all this, we had another meeting like ten years ago with Tacoma and they were trying to buy us off with peanuts. 'Here, $10 million,' but not in cash but in other little different ways, in fisheries and what not. And we're like, 'No, this is not about money for us [because] our elders told us that we just want the water back in the river.' And so part of that settlement is that we do get the water back in the river and the 1,400 acres. But tribal people, a lot of people, this is bad times right now so people do need money and I understand that, but we stayed the course. This is about bringing the water back to our river.

So at this meeting all these rumblings came up, "˜Well, we're going to vote it down. We're going to vote it down.' I'm like, "˜Ah, geez.' I'm not on council anymore, but I'm on the budget committee. And if you're not on council, the best committee to be on is the budget committee [because] that's where you see where everything goes and how everything works. And so I was thinking, 'Well, okay.' I got up and I did this speech about how our elders wanted the water back in the river and our focus wasn't about money and we need to be united in our effort in this [because] if Tacoma sees that we're divided then they're going to use it against us. And so I said, "˜Okay, I recommend that we reinstate the Rights Protection Committee, that we have members from each family on the reservation be on this committee to represent them, we have two council members from the council to be on this Rights Protection Committee, we have two youth -- I think as council people we need to start mentoring our young people to be the leaders so we need to involve more of our kids in the stuff we do at the tribal level -- and then we have two elders to be part of that committee.' And that's kind of what sold the vote.

So then I just said, "˜I call for a vote. Let's vote on this. We're either going to do it or we're not going to do it.' And it ended up being unanimous; we accepted the settlement. In the end it was $46 million. That's more money than we've ever had in our history and we got our water back. We're getting our water back and we're reinstituting the fish runs in that river. We had a sockeye run that went up so we have a plan to reinstitute sockeye back into our fisheries. And so it benefits all our tribal members, but the only way it got through was involving this Rights Protection Committee. And I think that that's a good venue to use because then they have a voice and they feel like they're being heard and they can give input and what not. And if you don't have that then they're going to fight you every inch of the way. I see those things really work well. There are still problems, but at least we got the vote through and we seen light at the end of the tunnel.

I always, the only thing that I regret being a chairman was that it took so much time away from my family. That's the main thing that I regretted. We all deal with that, but that's just the nature of the beast. But that's the main thing that I regret about being on tribal council was that it took so much time away from my family and my friends. But somebody's got to do it, because we've got to make sure we govern our tribes in a good way.

So now we do have some money to work with, we have our water back, we have prime land; we got 300 acres of tidelands, we got the salt water park right next to the dam, we got 500 acres of land up at Lake Cushman. These are real prime properties that were ours originally anyway, but now at least we have them back to put them back into our reservation. So I'm going to close with a joke. Don't get offended 'cause it's just a joke. How are politicians and diapers alike? They both need to be changed and for the same reason. That's what I have to offer and thank you for listening to me."