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February 22, 2016

Meet Native America: Fawn Sharp, President of the Quinault Indian Nation, President of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and Area Vice 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

Tyson Johnston, President Obama, and Fawn Sharp

From left to right: Tyson Johnston, vice president of the Quinault Indian Nation; Barack Obama, president of the United States; and Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation, president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, and area vice president of the National Congress of American Indians at the 7th Annual White House Tribal Nations Conference. November 2015, Washington, D.C.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title. 

My name is Fawn Sharp. I am president of the Quinault Indian Nation, president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, and area vice president of the National Congress of American Indians

Where is your tribal community located? 

The Quinault Indian Reservation is located on the southwestern corner of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. We are bordered by the Pacific Ocean, Olympic National Park, and the Olympic Mountains. 

Where were your people originally from? 

We are among the small number of Americans who can walk the same beaches, paddle the same waters, and hunt the same lands our ancestors did centuries ago. The Quinault Indian Nation (QIN) consists of the Quinault and Queets tribes and descendants of five other coastal tribes: Quileute, Hoh, Chehalis, Chinook, and Cowlitz. 

Our ancestors lived on a major physical and cultural dividing line. Beaches to the south are wide and sandy, while to the north they are rugged and cliff-lined. We shared in the cultures of the people to the south as well as those to the north. 

Living in family groups in longhouses up and down the river, we were sustained by the land and by trade with neighboring tribes. Superb salmon runs, abundant sea mammals, wildlife, and forests provided substantial material and spiritual wealth to our ancestors. 

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

You have to be one-quarter Quinault, Queets, or one of the other five coastal tribes. Our General Council—which is composed of all voting-age members of our tribe—meets annually the last Saturday in March. Among other agenda items is the determination of whether or not to accept new tribal members. 

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

Our history is rich with significant lessons and occurrences. A great store of knowledge about plants and their uses helped provide for our people. The western redcedar, the “tree of life,” provided logs for canoes, bark for clothing, split-boards for houses, and more. We are the Canoe People, the people of the cedar tree. We remember our past while employing modern principles in a marriage that will bring hope and promise to our people now and in the future. 

The QIN is a sovereign nation with the inherent right to govern itself and deal with other tribes and nations on a government-to-government basis. By-laws established in 1922 and a constitution approved in 1975 form the foundations of the modern-day Quinault government. The Self-Governance Act of 1988 began as a demonstration project in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1990, we took the challenge, along with six other tribes, to implement self-rule in Indian affairs. This law was amended in 1991 and authorized planning activities in the Indian Health Service. After 150 years of mismanagement by the federal government, it was obvious that tribes could manage their own affairs better and make their own decisions without external interference. This is the basic underlying philosophy of self-governance. 

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader? 

There are many duties. I am ultimately responsible for the safety and welfare of all our people. As president of the Quinault Indian Nation, I preside over Business Committee meetings and meetings of the General Council. I also supervise all our department directors and represent our nation to the outside world. I work with other members of the Tribal Council to plan our future and keep our heritage alive. 

As president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, I preside at all conventions of an organization, which consists of member tribes in six Northwest states. In that role, as well as in various national roles, including area vice president of National Congress of American Indians, I work to help protect the rights of Native American people throughout the country involving issues ranging from climate change response to sovereignty. 

How is your tribal government set up? 

The Quinault Business Committee, which consists of four executive officers and seven council members, is entrusted with the business and legislative affairs of the QIN throughout the year. 

How often does your government meet? 

The Business Committee meets every 2nd and 4th Monday. The General Council meets annually, with the exception of occasionally meeting semi-annually, called Mid-Year, which we did in 2015. 

Who inspired you as a mentor? 

We have been fortunate to have many outstanding leaders at Quinault and among the other tribes of the Pacific Northwest. A few of those who have inspired me have been Joe DeLaCruz, who served as president of the Quinault Indian Nation for 22 years, and Billy Frank Jr., a Nisqually tribal member who chaired the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission for more than 30 years. Both of these men were key activists in the days when our people’s struggle led to the Boldt Decision (U.S. v Washington) in U.S. Federal District Court. In affirming our fishing rights, Boldt upheld treaties over state law under the Constitution. Joe DeLaCruz and Billy Frank sacrificed much and devoted their lives to improving the lives of Native Americans. Their influence was felt near and far, and their legacies will live on and on. They were both my mentors, and they both had great impact on my life and the choices I have made. 

Billy Frank Jr and Fawn Sharp

Native rights activist and Chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission Billy Frank Jr. (Nisqually, 1931–2014) and Quinault Indian Nation President Fawn Sharp. October 2013. 

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? 

Yes. We still have elders who understand and speak our Native languages, Quinault, Chinook, Cowlitz, and Quileute. We have classes to teach our youth elements of the languages as well. They are not the dominant language in our community, but we do have an interest in keeping the languages alive. 

What economic enterprises does your tribal community own? 

We have many enterprises, including QMart stores; the Quinault Beach Resort and Casino; Quinault Pride Seafood; our forest products enterprises, QLTE; etc. I recently wrote a column for our local newspaper that tells more; it's not on the Internet, so if people are interested: 

Happy New Year! The year 2016 is going to be great! With just over month into the calendar, the Quinault Nation is already incredibly busy and looking forward to working with our neighboring communities to help build the economy of the Grays Harbor region while protecting and restoring our natural environment. More and more people are coming to the realization that these two values are connected and that we need to work together to sustain them. 

The people of Aberdeen, Hoquiam, and other communities have worked with us to oppose the expanded influence of Big Oil in our area for years now, and although the oil trains and vessels keep coming, we have at least received the good news that Renewable Energy Group, the Iowa-based company which bought nearly all the assets of Imperium Renewables last summer, does not plan to handle crude oil. 

That challenge continues of course. We will continue to work against the expansion of other oil terminals and increased oil traffic. The mega-expansion in the number and size of oil trains remains a very dangerous situation that must be dealt with. There have been far too many train wrecks and far too many spills to let up on this effort. We also have to keep working to help people understand that the use of oil and other fossil fuels worsen the effects of climate change and ocean acidification. The time has come to cut back on their use, not expand them. 

For far too long our people and the people who live in our neighboring communities have suffered from unemployment and inadequate enterprise and industry. But our future is not based on oil. Quite the opposite. We live in a place of beautiful beaches, rivers, forests, wetlands and mountains. Our future is interconnected with clean air and pure water. Our future is dependent on thriving fish, bird and mammal populations. These things are not consistent with mile long oil trains and the oil spills they inevitably bring. 

Speaking for Quinault Nation, a healthy tribal economy has many components that must be strategically thought out, leveraged, and maximized. We all know we operate and manage tribally owned businesses—Quinault Pride Seafood, Quinault Beach Resort and Casino, QLTE, and c-stores. We are building a private sector economy and helping individual tribal citizens establish their own businesses. We are establishing off-reservation business acquisitions and growth, in and around Grays Harbor as well as other expanded parts of western Washington. We also are working to create favorable economic conditions for companies to site their business on or near the Quinault Reservation. We are also targeting international trade opportunities to bring foreign investment that otherwise might not ever reach the shores of the United States but for our efforts. 

Each one of these components is like a spoke on a wheel. Gone are the days when we focused only on tribally owned businesses. I've often said when everything rises or falls on government that's a very dysfunctional way to generate revenue for our future and often a losing proposition. Much of our historical effort has been dedicated to turning these businesses around from government-subsidized operations that lost money, year after year, to profitable and growing businesses. Today, we have a very broad and strategic vision for not only creating a healthy economy but securing our financial position for many generations to come. It's important to note that our economic vision doesn't come from just the government but also many our tribal citizens who have helped shape that vision by providing input into our Comprehensive Economic Development Strategies. I thank them, and I also thank our non-tribal neighbors who have cooperated with us, patronized our businesses and served as employees of the Quinault Nation. The Nation, which is the largest employer in Grays Harbor County, is very happy to provide good, clean and sustainable jobs for so many great people and families in the region. With the $25 million expansion of the Quinault Beach Resort and Casino we just announced, as well as other businesses and enterprises we plan to employ even more and continue to make a major contribution to the health, benefit and growth of the region. 

Our first fiscal quarterly report was very positive, showing steady growth in each of our businesses. A few worth noting: QMart 2 has exceeded many of our financial projections and forecasts in its first year of operations. In one revenue line item, we exceeded our budget by nearly 300 percent of expectation; Quinault Beach Resort and Casino is gearing up to commence a multi-million dollar expansion in 2016; Quinault Pride Seafood presented a comprehensive plan to reduce costs, increase revenues, and restructure its debt which, when complete, will no longer be secured by QIN collateral thereby freeing up those assets for other purposes. It was also great news to learn that each one of our businesses reported progress in achieving both performance and financial benchmarks for First Quarter FY16 (October–December, 2015). We are truly blessed with a dynamic team of highly knowledgeable and experienced business leaders, committed directors serving on our Quinault Nation Enterprise Board, and a new and emerging cadre of 20 enterprise employees who successfully accomplished intensive leadership training aimed at improving a wide range of business and management skills. Our businesses are growing and our people are growing. It's an exciting time and we have much to be thankful for! 

It is our custom to always learn from our ancestry, and to use that knowledge and those values in all that we do. It is also our custom to look forward, and base our decisions on the impact they will have in the generations to come. That's why we are striving to enrich the education of our people. It's why we are working to restore fish and wildlife habitat and manage our fishing and hunting in a way that will sustain these resources for the generations to come. It's also why we choose to pursue every opportunity to work cooperatively with other jurisdictions on a government-to-government basis and it's why we choose to be good neighbors with you-the citizens of the Grays Harbor region. Following this path, 2016 will, indeed, be a happy new year. 

What annual events does the Quinault community sponsor? What other attractions are available for visitors on your land and waters? 

This is a beautiful part of the country, and there are almost too many outdoor activities to list. Our guides take people steelhead and trout fishing on the Quinault River below Lake Quinault in winter and summer. People can contact 360-276-8211, extension 279 or 372, for a list of guides or look at the heading Fish & Bear Guides to the left on the QIN homepage for links to some of our guides’ websites. There is lake fishing for trout when Lake Quinault is open. Tribal permits and regulations are available at outlets near Lake Quinault. (Here are the regulations for 2015.)

Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest border on the eastern part of the reservation, including Lake Quinault. Both the national park and the national forest offer easy-to-walk interpretative trails, or for experienced hikers, trails into the backcountry. Some highlights are bird watching, elk, black bear, temperate rain forests, and subalpine country. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Quinault National Fish Hatchery, on the reservation south of Lake Quinault, welcomes visitors. The hatchery works with the QIN to support Pacific salmon along our coast by restoring fish runs. 

In terms of cultural events, our Chief Taholah Days celebration to commemorate the 1855 Quinault Treaty takes place every year during the first week of July. It includes a parade, baseball, canoe races, a salmon bake, fireworks, and more. The Quinault Cultural Center in Taholah has exhibits of natural and cultural artifacts from Quinault country. It's open weekdays. Contact 360 -276-8215, extension 245, for more information. 

We also have the Quinault Beach Resort and Casino, a family-oriented resort with many beachside activities—horseback riding, kite flying, beachcombing—as well as a full-service casino for adults. Quinault Beach also has facilities for conferences small and large. 

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

The Boldt Decision in 1974 served as a spearhead for tribes across the country and beyond. It led to many things, many additional achievements, including clearer government-to-government relationships among the federal, state, and tribal government. We deal with the United States on a government-to-government basis, and we hold the United States government to the terms of our treaty, the Treaty of Olympia of 1856. This treaty and the other treaties between the United States and Indian nations are valid, just as the Constitution—which refers to treaties made under the authority of the United States as the “supreme Law of the land”—is valid. The trust relationship the United States has with tribal governments is valid. 

Our relationship with the United States is, thus, inherited. We 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 good working relationship. 

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

Our youth are our future. We believe in our young people and support them in every way possible. That includes resources for education at all levels. It includes good physical and mental health, opportunities to learn about our ancestry and to excel in whatever field of endeavor they choose. We want them to be safe and to have good family lives, to be able to go as far as their dreams and efforts can take them. We want them to know the value of good, hard work, and to be rewarded for their efforts. We want them to stay away from drugs and alcohol. We want them to know there is always a place for them here at Quinault, but we encourage them to experience the rest of the world if that is their wish. And most of all we want them to know they’re loved. 

Is there anything else you would like to add? 

As President Obama works to complete his final year in the White House, I wish to commend everything he has done to support the tribes across the country. There is still a lot of work to do to advance the cause of Native Americans, but no other U.S. president in history has ever done what he has done. None has issued a proclamation to his administration instructing the Executive Branch to assure that their rulings be respectful of tribal rights in all actions affecting Native people. None has ever visited as many tribes as he has. He was even adopted into the Crow Nation! None has ever hired as many Native Americans to serve on his immediate staff, and none has ever set aside a time each and every year during which he and his cabinet have met with hundreds of tribal leaders from across the country to learn about and discuss tribal problems, challenges, and ideas. 

As I say, there is still much work to do, largely due to the gridlock in Congress. Cuts in federal funding have truly hurt the American Indian people—the people with the lowest life expectancy, the highest disease rate, the lowest average income, and the largest percentage of school dropouts and incarcerations in all of America. 

We at Quinault are working hard to change these things, and we are making good progress. But it is imperative that the spirit of President Obama be felt by all in federal government. 

We are a good people, a strong people, with roots in this country that go far deeper than other Americans can even imagine. We wish nothing but the best for the United States of America. We have served and sacrificed in the country’s military at a higher percentage than any other ethnicity. We seek a positive and rewarding experience in our government-to-government relationship, a mutually beneficial association based on the bonds of common cause and a brighter future. 

It is time for us to be remembered, not forgotten, and for the transgressions against us of the past to give way to the opportunities of the future. Our path is one we need to travel together. 

Thank you. 

Thank you. 

Photos courtesy of the Quinault Indian Nation; used with permission.

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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