The mythical Coyote is said to be a trickster. But he is also a transformer and brought FIRE to the people. Fire is good except when it’s not.
It was not on July 29, 2013 when the Colville tribal office burned down and displaced 40 tribal employees including the 14 council members. Although Council Chairman Michael Finely said the building was like the U.S. White House, the fire will not stop the tribe from functioning. The tribe is more than just a building.
The tribes on the Colville Indian Reservation became organized as twelve confederated tribes in 1938. They first held their meetings in the original council hall built in the 1920’s that was eventually abandoned for safety reasons.
Until 1975 when the tribal office shown in the picture was built the council did not have a place to meet. They borrowed the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) conference room for their meetings. They didn’t have desks or staff and were lucky to even have a chair. But that didn’t stop them.
The FIRE symbol is more than a physical happening. It also means “fire in the belly” for individuals. This means they have the energy and desire to accomplish something. Fire means transformation of the physical elements to something useful.
In people it is action, energy and power fueled by desire which results in the will to succeed. Our history shows that many of our council members had this desire and accomplished a lot.
To put a face on the council let’s look at some of the long term members.
Barney Rickard (Inchelium 1938-1943, Keller 1954 – 1974)
When the tribes were moved to the present location of the reservation in 1872 the government report wondered how anyone could survive because it was primarily mountains and forest with very little agricultural potential. But the forest remained untouched as there was no major logging until the 1930’s. Barney primarily worked on increasing the logging for benefit of the tribe and its members. This was a start of a long-term effort to improve our forest. We now have an allowable cut which sustains the forest inventory. We have achieved respect from other forestry organizations because of our forest operations.
Lucy Covington (Nespelem 1954 – 1979)
Lucy was known for her relentless opposition to terminating the reservation. This started as a movement to get out from under the BIA which was mismanaging the tribal assets. After a long court battle the Cobell lawsuit against the Federal government was favorably settled in favor of the tribes in 2012. The majority of tribal members did not want to sell so the reservation remained intact.
Women have always been elected to our council as they are the backbone of the tribe. Lucy was also the first woman to be elected Chairperson of the council. Lucy was a descendant of Chilcosahaskt of the Entiat tribe by his second wife, Suzanne. I and others referred to her as Aunt Lucy because it is a tribal custom to honor elders as Aunt or Uncle.
She operated a cattle ranch and was a good business person. She lobbied to get the first Indian Action Team (IAT) on our Reservation which trained our people in the construction trades. When the Nespelem store was destroyed by fire she quickly had the tribe establish a temporary store in the old council hall until the tribal trading post was built.
Shirley Palmer (Nespelem 1959 -1986)
Shirley was instrumental in establishing the tribal enrollment policy because she knew the lineage of all the families. Eventually Amendment Nine to the tribal constitution was approved which established the tribal base roll and made the enrollment of tribal members easier to determine. The enrollment policy includes adopting other Indians who lives among the tribe and practices our customs and traditions. This a carryover from aboriginal times.
She also diligently worked with the Indian Health Service (IHS) to improve tribal health programs on the reservation. She was a descendent of Wapato John who was Chilcosahaskt’s half-brother.
Mel Tonasket (Omak 1969 – 1988, 2003 – 2004)
Mel was known for his Billy Jack hat he wore on his many trips throughout Indian Country. He coordinated the efforts of many tribes at the national level as a continuation of Lucy’s work. He served as the elected chairman of the council for many years.
On his second attempt he was elected President of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). Mel had to spend a lot of time with many tribal council members of the 546 tribes spread out from Alaska to Florida to achieve this difficult task.
He also worked with Shirley on Indian Health Service (IHS) problems and after retiring from the council he became employed by the IHS.
Dale Kohler (Omak 1975 – 1996)
Dale, an attorney, did legal analysis for the council and was instrumental in negotiating with the federal government for the Lake Roosevelt Cooperative Agreement that enabled the tribes to manage all activities on Lake Roosevelt. He laid the ground work for settling the Grand Coulee Dam claim against the government which also resulted in the Wells Dam settlement.
He was key in establishing the tribal casinos which initially had a lot of legal barriers. Casinos were established at Mill Bay in Manson, Okanogan, and Coulee Dam.
He did a lot of volunteer work for organizations such as the Omak Indian Stampede Committee. As a result he consistently had record votes during tribal elections.
These are only a few of the council members that made significant contributions. There have been many and will continue to be more in the future.
Now the present council is also challenged with poor working conditions but history has shown they will be up to the task. They have quickly moved into temporary quarters throughout the reservation until the new office building is completed. The tribe has already made the transition into the modern business world. They have recently added the Tribal Trails gasoline and convenience store and are expanding the casinos. They will soon restart the plywood mill which was shut down because of world economic conditions. They are making an effort to reduce the tribal unemployment which, like most reservations, is the highest in the nation.
The “fire in the belly” continues.
Wendell George writes Go-la’-ka Wa-wal-sh (Raven Speaks) He can be reached via email at email@example.com.