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December 18, 2015

Meet Native America: Jeromy Sullivan, Chairman, Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe

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

Chairman Jeromy Sullivan
Chairman Jeromy Sullivan, Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Jeromy Sullivan. I'm chairman of the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe.

Can you share your Native name and its English translation, or your nickname? 

I don’t have a Native name. It isn’t something my family has done. Only a few Port Gamble S'Klallam families on the reservation have gone through the ceremony. This is an issue of lost culture: It’s almost impossible to practice your culture when you aren’t allowed to have any, as was the case during the periods of forced assimilation. 

Where is your tribal community located?

The Port Gamble S'Klallam Reservation is located on the northern tip of the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington state. Our reservation was established in 1938.

Where is your tribe originally from?

The Port Gamble S'Klallam were originally known as the Nux Sklai Yem or Strong People. We are the descendants of the Salish people who have been well established in the Puget Sound basin and surrounding areas since 2400 B.C.

Before explorers and settlers arrived to the Pacific Northwest, there were S'Klallam villages scattered throughout the Olympic Peninsula. Our oral history tells us that one of our most important settlements was located on the shores of Port Gamble Bay, which, in the S'Klallam language, is known as Noo-Kayet. Today the site of that ancestral village, called Teekalet, is located across the bay from our reservation in the town of Port Gamble.

What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?

In 1853 the Port Gamble Mill was established by the Puget Mill Company at the S'Klallam village of Teekalet. For a time my ancestors lived on the spit adjacent to Port Gamble Bay, but soon they were moved across the water to an area we know today as Point Julia. Oral history tells us that my tribal ancestors agreed to move away from their established village in exchange for enough lumber for each family to build a home and jobs as long as the mill remained operational.

This agreement would shape the lives of the Port Gamble S'Klallam people forever. Many Port Gamble S'Klallam families can trace back several generations who worked full time at the mill. Tribal historians estimate that, conservatively, in the mill’s 142 years of operation, Port Gamble S'Klallam members worked the equivalent of 500 years. While the mill displaced the S'Klallam people from a key settlement, it also strangely kept us together. While other tribes scattered with the industrialization of America, the Port Gamble S'Klallam stayed relatively intact because, in part, of the employment opportunities available through the mill.

After 142 years of operation, the mill shut its doors in 1995. It remains the longest operating sawmill in U.S. history—in no small part due to the work of my tribe!

Unfortunately, during the mill’s tenure, it also deposited untold levels of woody debris and toxic sentiments into Port Gamble Bay, which is an irreplaceable fishing and shellfish harvesting area for the Port Gamble S'Klallams.

Twenty years after the mill’s closing, the Department of Ecology has negotiated with Pope Resources, the company liable for the mill’s actions, to clean up Port Gamble Bay. Work began this fall and signifies a huge milestone for my tribe. While our ancestral villages can never be restored, this cleanup will ensure that our tribal members will be able to practice their treaty rights for generations to come.

How is your tribal government set up?

In 1992, the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe became one of the first self-governing tribes in the United States and has since assumed control of its Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Service programs. By being in control of these programs, we have been able to expand and improve services to our tribal members. For example, we were the first tribe in Washington state to introduce a program of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), and we were also the first tribe in the nation to be able to offer independent foster care, adoption, and guardianship services.

Our tribal government is divided into two branches: Tribal Government Administration and Tribal Government Services. A six-member Tribal Council, which includes my position as chairman, governs the tribe.

HHS secretary meeting at Port Gamble House of Knowledge

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Sylvia Mathews Burwell meets with tribal leaders. August 2014, Port Gamble S'Klallam Reservation, Washington. From left to right: Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and president of the National Congress of American Indians; Dr. Yvette Roubideaux (Rosebud Sioux), director of the Indian Health Service (IHS) from 2009 to 2015; Andy Joseph Jr., councilman, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation; Secretary Burwell; Chairman Sullivan; Susan Johnson, HHS regional director; Liz Mueller, vice chair, Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe; Leonard Forsman, chairman, Suquamish Tribe; Frances G. Charles, chairwoman, Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe; JooYeun Chang, associate commissioner of the HHS Children's Bureau from 2013 to 2015. Secretary Burwell used the occasion, her first tribal visit as head of HHS, to learn about the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe’s foster care program and health initiatives, as well. 

Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?

While we don’t have an official, sanctioned traditional leadership entity, like a chief, there are certainly hierarchies of people within the community we trust to counsel on issues of culture or tradition. In some cases when people within our own community have lacked the knowledge of traditional ceremonies, we have turned to other tribes for this information. This has included the re-introduction of lost songs, which have had to be re-gifted to my tribe. This ties back in to the loss of culture that was forced upon Native tribes during periods of assimilation.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

Tribal Council and chair positions are open for election every two years. An election is held every year for three council positions. These positions alternate with the other three annually.

How often does your Tribal Council meet?

Our Tribal Council meets every other Monday for day-long sessions. Special sessions are called as necessary.

What responsibilities do you have as tribal leader?

I take seriously my role as a tribal leader, which includes being an ambassador for the tribe to the outside world. Storytelling is a key aspect of our culture, and a part of my job is to tell the story of the Port Gamble S'Klallam. I also have a responsibility from those who came before me, including past leaders and our elders. It is my job to take their counsel to make sure I’m making the best decisions for my tribe.

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?

My previous job experience played a big role in how I lead today. I worked for nine years at the Bingo Hall. This job was very social and helped me come out of my shell. I was very shy and didn’t talk much before starting at the Bingo Hall, where I was forced to work with the public and learn how to communicate.

After that job, I started working in Information Technology for my tribe. That was an eye-opening experience, as I worked with every single department and got to hear about all the various issues. That gave me a much more detailed understanding of everything my tribe is responsible for when it comes to taking care of its community.

Of course, I would also hear from my friends, family, and neighbors about their frustrations, and I encourage that kind of feedback today. Transparency is very important to this community, and that’s why I ran for Tribal Council 11 years ago—I felt like I could do a good job at that.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

My mentors have evolved throughout different phases of my life. My mom taught me about tribal issues. My dad is a good family leader. There have also been many members of my extended family who have taught me important life lessons.

Jake Jones and Ron Charles are former council members who have always been willing to give me their counsel when needed. Within the community, there are those who are spiritual leaders and people that are just all-around good people whose advice I seek.

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? 

No, I am not the descendant of a historical leader.

Approximately how many members are in your tribe?

The Port Gamble S'Klallam have approximately 1200 members.

What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe?

Enrollment into the Port Gamble S'Klallam is open to all persons of Indian blood who are descended from a member of the base roll and are of one-eighth degree or more Port Gamble S'Klallam Indian Blood.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers? 

The Klallam language was almost lost due, in large part, to more than a generation of our people being removed from their homes and placed into boarding schools.  

The situation grew so dire that by 1990 there were only eight people who could speak the Klallam language. In 1992 our sister tribe, the Lower Elwha Klallams, began transcribing tapes dating back to 1953 that included conversations with native speakers. This was the first step in revitalizing the language, and Lower Elwha has made huge strides since then with Klallam being taught at their local high school. Over 200 students have taken advantage of these classes since 1999.

As we had no elders left who were fluent in the language, Lower Elwha shared their knowledge and curriculum with us so we could set up a certification system that has allowed members of our tribe to learn the language and begin teaching others. Today we begin teaching Klallam words and phrases to our children during their earliest on-reservation educational experiences.

What economic enterprises does your tribe own?

The Noo-Kayet Development Corporation is an agency of the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe and is responsible for economic development and managing established enterprises. These include:

  • The Point Casino, which we remodeled in 2012 and which now features three restaurants, a cigar bar, and an events center;
  • Gliding Eagle Marketplace, a convenience store, deli, and gas station complex located on the reservation that does business with people from all over the area; and
  • Heronswood, a renowned botanical garden in Kingston, Washington.

The tribe purchased Heronswood in 2012 and set about trying to restore it to its original state after more than a decade of neglect. Currently the Port Gamble S'Klallam Foundation, our tribe’s nonprofit entity, is in charge of the garden’s management. While the money it earns right now goes back to support restoration and maintenance activities related to the garden, we may eventually offer Heronswood as a wedding venue, or host classes and other special events.

We also just broke ground on a new hotel, which will be built adjacent to our casino. The new complex will be called The Point Casino and Hotel. The hotel will be four stories and will include 94 rooms, meeting space, an outdoor courtyard with a kitchen and fire pit, and a restaurant called The Point Julia Café.

It took several years of planning to come up with a final hotel design that would meet our needs, satisfy those from all the communities we serve and work with, and be reflective of our tribe’s culture and values. This project does just that. We’re especially excited about the art elements throughout, including an outdoor, four-story “paddles up” welcoming statue, totem poles throughout the courtyard, and elements that represent tribal life and the natural world in each of the guest rooms.

PGST Point Hotel groundbreaking

Chairman Sullivan (fourth from left, wearing a red shirt) with colleagues on the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribal Council and members of the economic development team at the groundbreaking for The Point Hotel. September 2015, Kingston, Washington. 

What community events does your tribe sponsor?

We sponsor several community events, including the Strong Families Fair, which provides an opportunity for our tribal departments to interact with community members.

We also host an annual S'Klallam gathering to recognize new youth royalty and, in 2012, after more than a generation, we began to host an annual Return of the Salmon ceremony, which integrates the old traditions with some new ones, like a fishing derby.

Throughout the year, we also host a number of clambakes, informational meetings, celebrations, and other events.

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

Our tribe is one of the favorite stops on the Canoe Journey. We’re known as great hosts, and everyone is invited—those on the journey, their family and friends, and whoever else might like to attend, tribal and non-tribal alike. We’re very proud to have people come visit our lands.

While we don’t have a lot of tourist activities on the reservation, we welcome visitors who want to come to our campus to take a look at our Longhouse, where we also host a number of events.

Our tribally run entities, The Point Casino and Heronswood, are also very popular with visitors.

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

We see the federal government as our partners and we collaborate well together. Of course we do have times when we disagree, and there are some issues we work better together on than others. For example, they have always been encouraging of our efforts surrounding supporting our tribal families. We may hit potholes in coming up with solutions, but they aren’t insurmountable.

A part of the reason our relationship is so strong is because we have learned to be clear with what’s important to our tribe. For example our strong voice on treaty rights has helped the federal government understand the importance of this issue to our tribe and that we will not back down from protecting these rights.

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

Participate and learn about your community. Listen to your elders and the people with experience. You may not agree with what they say or even follow their advice, but you need to listen because they have the wisdom of experience.

Our kids also need to remember that hard work is key to getting what you want and need, not just for yourself, but also for your community.

Thank you. 

Thank you. 


Photos courtesy of the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe.

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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