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California and the West

A Question of Sovereignty

Opposition to Tribe's Concert Venue Raises Basic Issues

July 26, 1998|TERRY McDERMOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AUBURN, Wash. — The Enumclaw Plateau, a stretch of horse and hobby farm country, is the sort of place people go to get away from it all. Trout streams tumble through grassy pastures dotted by country dream homes. Big-shouldered Mt. Rainier hulks on the eastern horizon, reminding everybody why they fled Seattle, an hour north.

Then you round a corner on the two-lane blacktop and, boom, there atop giant steel stilts sits a huge metal canopy shaped like a gull-wing spaceship just in from Alpha Centauri.

It is the roof of a 23,000-seat amphitheater being built by the Muckleshoot tribe. The theater is reviled by the Muckleshoots' off-reservation neighbors, who want it and the thousands of concert-goers it would attract erased from their bucolic existence. The tribe, ironically, stands accused of ruining a pastoral lifestyle with its newfangled city ways.

On the surface, the fight seems like a simple not-in-my-backyard land use dispute: Somebody wants to build something; somebody else wants them not to. But although intensely local, the dispute typifies conflicts between tribes and non-Indians that are proliferating throughout the United States. And it raises deeper questions about the nature of Indian rights in the United States today. What exactly is an Indian nation? And what rights come with the territory?

"The Indian wars haven't stopped," says Clarence Bob, a member of the Lummi Nation in Washington state.

"They just changed the way they were fighting."

Dull words in long legal briefs have replaced blades and bullets. The disputes number in the dozens and range broadly: slot machines and other Nevada-style gambling in California, fish quotas in Minnesota, local taxes in Alaska, casino revenue in Connecticut, police powers in New Mexico.

Whatever the specifics, almost all the conflicts arise out of 19th century treaty rights. In those treaties, tribes were given absolute control over their reservations. Control over land is a defining characteristic of sovereign nations. At least theoretically, that's what the tribes are.

Opponents say the notion of such independence is an anachronism that makes no sense in the modern, integrated world.

The Enumclaw Plateau, with ready access to booming high-tech suburbs, Boeing factories and the playgrounds of the Cascade Range, is one of the fastest-growing portions of a fast-growing metropolitan region. Homemade signs along the highway advertise hints of farm life gone uptown. One place sells llama wool and burros. Another offers championship steers and paint ball supplies. Yet another advertises freelance software design.

The area was growing so quickly a few years ago, in fact, that local government stepped in to slow it down by buying development rights to farmland, ensuring it would remain agricultural.

The Muckleshoot reservation was established a century ago as all the land between the Green and White rivers, from Puget Sound to the mountains, about 75,000 acres. The reservation has been eroded by legislation, railroads and mismanagement; it is now 3,000 acres bisected by state route 164.

For most of the reservation's existence, it had been remote. But over the last 30 years, the Muckleshoots have found themselves on an island in the midst of an economic boom that didn't include them.

The Muckleshoots were among the beneficiaries of U.S. District Judge George Boldt's 1974 ruling that Northwest tribes were entitled by treaty to half the annual harvest of salmon from Northwest waters. The fish harvests that followed were never rich enough to alter the tribe's persistent poverty. But the Boldt decision had a huge symbolic impact; it was a sort of Indian economic bill of rights. It coincided with a Nixon administration push toward tribal self-government and initiated a period of economic awakening.

The Muckleshoots wanted a share of what they saw all around them: jobs. They found that the shrunken distances between them and a couple of million potential customers suddenly gave their land value. The competitive advantage they enjoyed was freedom from much government regulation.

No longer content to commute between dilapidated double-wide factory homes and plywood fireworks stands, the tribe plunged into modern commerce. The Muckleshoots have become bingo hall and casino operators, highway patrol officers, housing developers--and now, would-be concert promoters.

Last year the tribe, in partnership with a San Francisco-based firm, started building the amphitheater on a bank above the White River. The tribe did not consult neighbors or pay much attention to their objections. Neither were the Muckleshoots deterred by local government pleas to reconsider the project in light of any potential adverse impacts--mainly traffic.

Tribal leaders said their economic needs dwarf whatever minor environmental effects the amphitheater might have. Besides, they said, as a sovereign government, the tribe is not subject to local land use regulations.

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