Election season at the Puyallup Tribe is quickly approaching. This round, there are two positions open and a number of tribal members have thrown their hats into the ring to vie for the seats. The primary election is on April 6, and the general election follows on June 1.
Since the tribe is a major player in working with the county, city, port and state to set policies and influence major decisions that affect all who live here, the tribe’s council elections are something that bear watching just as any other governing body.
However, tribal council elections are different from those outside of the reservation, mostly in how they are not open and accessible to the general public. It’s just as difficult for the press to find information. Whenthe Tacoma Weekly reached out for comment from the two current council members up for re-election, Chairman Bill Sterud and Annette Bryan, we received this response from tribal staff attorney Robert Hunter: “Chairman Sterud and Councilwoman Bryan appreciate your invitation to make comment about the Tribe’s upcoming elections. However, due to the vast range of issues, projects and government initiatives the Tribal Council is currently focusing on that not only benefit the tribe and tribal members, but the surrounding communities as well, Chairman Sterud and Councilwoman Bryan are unable to respond to your request.”
Winning a seat on the tribal council not only brings hefty responsibilities, but a hefty paycheck as well. With salary and benefits, tribal council members can earn around $300,000 a year, which is more than Gov. Jay Inslee makes. Puyallup tribal elections tend to draw a fair list of candidates, with many having run and lost in the past. Tribal members living on or near the reservation seem more engaged than tribal members who are scattered across the country, making the elections basically local popularity contests among those who personally know or are related to the candidates. Thus, voter turnout is generally low, with just a few hundred tribal members voting among a membership of more than 6,000. A race determined by one or two votes is not uncommon.
Across the country, tribal councils are to sovereign Indian nations what congress is to the United States. The history of how tribal councils were formed reaches back to the 1930s. Under the Indian Reorganization Act, (also referred to as the Wheeler-Howard Act), tribes were given the opportunity to regain land and formalize governments that would finally put them in a position to officially control their own affairs and make them respected governing bodies and nations.
For the Puyallups, a council-style of government was already in place prior to the Indian Reorganization Act, with well-known and influential tribal members taking the role as leaders, or “chiefs.” With the tribe already having been recognized under the Medicine Creek Treaty, the Indian Reorganization Act authorized the creation of an official tribal government and constitution. In 1936, the Puyallup tribe elected its first council of five people.
Sterud’s history with the tribe reaches far back into history as well. He has accumulated more than four decades on tribal council and even more as a tribal member activist. Among his accomplishments are taking part in negotiating the tribe’s gaming compacts and marijuana compacts with the state and being involved in the tribe’s land claims settlement of 1988 that expanded the tribe’s reservation boundaries. He helped launch the advent of the Tribe’s Emerald Queen Casinos in the late 1990s and early 2000s and has worked to open up new economic ventures for the tribe including the Salish Cancer Center and Commencement Bay Cannabis retail store.
Bryan, who is at the end of serving her first term, ran several times before finally winning in 2017. She also has dedicated her career to advocacy of Native American issues and tribal sovereignty. Herprevious work experience includes 10 years as a tribal coordinator at the Environmental Protection Agency, and 10 years as executive director of the Puyallup Nation Housing Authority. She has also served on the Tacoma-Pierce County Affordable Housing Consortium, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians Housing Sub-Committee, the HUD Formula Negotiated Rule Making Committee, the Northwest Indian Housing Association, and as the alternate on the National American Indian Housing Council.
Sterud’s accomplishments haven’t always turned out as successfully as hoped, however. For example, after remodeling Mitzel’s restaurant in Fife to open Stogie’s cigar lounge, it failed after less than a year in business. Now it is home to the tribe’s Commencement Bay Cannabis retail shop, which is faring about average among local cannabis retailers, with a second location coming soon to Portland Avenue across the street from the new Emerald Queen Casino. The Salish Cancer Center didn’t really take off either after its initial burst of activity when it opened in 2015.
Bryan may have her work cut out for her as well to get re-elected. She is using opposition to the liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant at the Port of Tacoma as a platform, although public protests have fizzled into nothing lately as more people realize that LNG is a better fuel for cargo ships than the fuel currently being used. In addition, Bryan has had to contend with her past, having been investigated by federal authorities regarding missing Housing and Urban Development money when she was head of the tribe’s Housing Authority. Under federal request, this matter was handled internally by the tribe. The tribal membership is well aware of this issue, and it raised its head during Bryan’s swearing in ceremony when Puyallup tribal member Quiasee Mills, who is running in the current election, stunned everyone present when she yelled out, “No crooks on council!”
Through a bit of research on Facebook, and from the looks of campaign signs around the tribe’s headquarters on Portland Avenue, among those said to be running in the current race, along with Mills, include Joe Duenas, chief of the Puyallup Tribe Police Department; Chester Earl, tribal employee; Fred Dillon, tribal employee; Monica Miller, program director of the tribe’s Per-Cap Department; Lucia Earl-Mitchell, coordinator at the Puyallup Nation Housing Authority; and Ramona Bennett.
Among these, Bennett has the most notoriety. She was Puyallup Tribal Council chairwoman from 1971-1978 and led the tribe through numerous historic events including the takeover of Cushman Hospital in 1976 and was a staunch activist during the “fishing wars” of the late 1960s and early 1970s, among her other activities. As written at www.IndigenousGoddessGang.com, Bennettbegan her social service work in Seattle’s American Indian Women’s Service League in the 1950s. In 1972, she co-founded the Local Indian Child Welfare Act Committee. Through the Committee, she developed a model for childhood and family service in Washington State that she used to help her co-author and secure a national Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978. In the 1980s, she served as an administrator for the Wa-He-Lut Indian School in Olympia before going on to co-found Rainbow Youth and Family Services, a Tacoma-based non-profit that she still directs today.