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January 30, 2015

Meet Native America: Brian Cladoosby, Chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and President of the National Congress of American Indians

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today. —Dennis Zotigh


Please introduce yourself with your name and title. 

Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).  

Chairman Brian Cladoosby
Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and president of the National Congress of American Indians.

Can you share your Native name with us?

It's Spee-Pots. It means Little Bear in our language. Spots is bear. When I was growing up my nickname was Cub. An elder, the late Vi Hilbert, bestowed that name on me. It is a gift that keeps on giving. 

Where is your tribal community located? 

The Swinomish Reservation is located about one hour north of Seattle and one hour south of the Canadian border. We are about 15 minutes off I-5. We live on an island, Fidalgo Island. We have 7,000 acres of land that is about 70 percent trust, and about 3,000 acres of tidelands. 

Where were your people originally from?

Swinomish is one of the tribes who were not removed from their homelands. We have been living in the same place for generations. We are also descendants of three other bands that were removed from their lands and relocated to Swinomish: We are successors to the Samish, Lower Skagit, and Kikiallus who had to relocate to Swinomish after the signing of the 1855 Point Elliott Treaty.

What are the criteria to become a member of the Swinomish Indian tribal Community?

You have to be one-quarter Swinomish.

What is a significant point in Swinomish history that you would like to share?

There are many—when we signed the Point Elliott Treaty, the fact that we have 70 percent of our reservation back in our ownership, having taxing authority on our own lands, sovereignty, and, of course, the Boldt decision in 1974, when the federal courts affirmed our treaty rights to our historic fishing grounds. All these will have generational impacts on the Swinomish people.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

As chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, I preside over all Senate meetings and meetings of the General Council—which is made up of all voting-age members of the Swinomish. I am paid full time, so I also supervise all our departmental directors.

As president of NCAI, I preside at all conventions of the organization and all meetings of the Executive Committee, and I am authorized to exercise other duties delegated to me by the Executive Committee.

How is your tribal government set up?

Swinomish has eleven senators who are elected to five-year terms. Two Senate seats are up every year, and three seats are up on the fifth year. I believe we are one of the only tribes in the nation whose government has five-year terms. This was created during the Indian Reorganization Act. We currently have about 170 years of Senate experience at our council table.

How often does your government meet?

The Senate meets the first Tuesday of every month. 

Who inspired you as a mentor? 

I really enjoyed attending grade school and high school. It was a great experience for me. I had some excellent teachers as role models who had a very positive impact in my life. 

Brian Cladoosby fishing
Chairman Brian Cladoosby, fishing.  

I also had the opportunity to listen to some of the best tribal speakers in our community growing up. We are an oral tradition culture, and listening to public speakers was very valuable for me. Landy James was a Swinomish tribal member, and not only my high school teacher, but also my football and baseball coach in high school. This man was all about building up the self-esteem of everyone he interacted with, especially youth. Morris Dan, Dewey Mitchell, Richard Peters, Dave Joe—these were some of the best speakers in our community, and growing up I had the opportunity to listen to them. Robert Joe, Sr., Chet Cayou Sr., Susan Wilbur, Laura Wilbur—these were some of the senators I had the opportunity to learn from when I was elected to our Senate in my 20s.

And of course my father, Mike Cladoosby. He is the best father anyone could ask for. He prepared me for life, from raising me, to teaching me how to fish, to just being an awesome example on how to be a father.

Kel-Kahl-Tsoot, my dad’s great grandfather, put his X on the Point Elliott Treaty for the Swinomish Tribe on January 22, 1855. My father is 81 years old. When you think about it, my dad’s great-grandfather signed our treaty in 1855. My dad is still alive, and he is the great grandfather to my grandchildren. My grandchildren are the seventh generation since the signing of our treaty.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands?

We only have a few tribal members who still have an understanding of our language.

What economic enterprises does your tribal community own?

We have the Swinomish Casino & Lodgea casino, bingo hall, lodge, and convention center—and two convenience stores that sell gas, cigarettes, and alcohol. We own an 18-hole golf course. We have the Swinomish Fish Company, which buys and sells salmon, crab, and other seafood products. We sell canned salmon, and we sell caviar to Europe and Japan. Working cooperatively with Native fisherman throughout the Salish Sea and from Alaska to California, we've started the NativeCatch brand of wild, sustainably harvested seafood. We just started selling salmon jerky to a company named Patagonia. We sell salmon cat and dog food, as well. We also have a number of land leases on our reservation, with four different types of businesses.

What annual events does the Swinomish community sponsor?

We have our annual Swinomish Days in August. The festival includes canoe races, a Fancy Dance contest, and bone games. In 2011 we hosted Paddle to Swinomish, that year's Salish Sea Canoe Journey, and each other year we welcome the canoes when they travel through our waters heading to the tribe that is hosting Canoe Journey.

What other attractions are available for visitors on your land and waters?

There are many attractions within one to two hours of our reservation—the San Juan Islands, the Cascade Mountains, the Skagit River, and many other beautiful places.

How does your tribe deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?

We have a relationship with the United States that we inherited, one we didn’t ask for. With that being said, we have to communicate continually with all levels of the federal government, from elected officials to administration officials to agencies and their staff. We deal with many agencies—the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of Justice, Health and Human Services—and it is important that we continue to talk with them to make sure we have a great working relationship. Like all relationships, we may not always agree, but we have to agree to disagree and still keep talking in order to work things out.

What message would you like to share with the youth of your community?

Our youth have so many opportunities in front of them. This is what our elders prayed for. We give full-ride scholarships to the school of your choice if you graduate from high school or get a GED. We believe that the way to defeat poverty and drug and alcohol abuse is through education. Our youth and their parents have to want to make the choice for education.

We have experienced a lot of historical trauma in our history, and it is up to us not to look at ourselves as victims, but survivors. And as survivors we are starting to break the cycle of trauma one generation at a time. The most important message for our youth is choice. At the end of the day, your choices bring one of two things, pain or pleasure.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I have the greatest job in the world. Our Creator has blessed me beyond measure. He is the reason I am where I am right now. I have an awesome wife, Nina—we will be married 37 years in March—two beautiful daughters, LaVonne and Mary; one son-in-law, Tyler; and two of the greatest gifts God can give you, grandchildren, Bella and Nathanael. 

I have been a member of the Swinomish Senate for 30 years and chairman for 18 years. It has been a great ride. I would not be able to be president of NCAI if we did not have a stable government at home. I work with 11 senators who are in the canoe, paddling in the same direction, with the same goals in mind, to provide the best governmental services for our people.

Thank you.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to introduce myself to your readers. God bless.


Photographs courtesy of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.

To read other interviews in this series, click on the banner below. Meet-native-america
From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All photos used with permission.

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