Tapping Tribal Roots – How Kalispel Tribal member Phil Haugen inspires change

Photos courtesy of Northern Quest Casino Resort

The plot of every compelling success story includes struggles against incredible adversity and a tenacious drive to fight for what you believe in with an eye on the prize, even if nobody else can see it. For the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, whose reservation is centered in the tiny town of Usk, 55 miles north of Spokane, Washington, progress sprang from the dreams of Tribal elders. Today, the realization of the Tribe’s dreams is personified in one man: Phil Haugen, a Kalispel Tribal member and Chief Operating Officer for the Kalispel Tribal Economic Authority.

Haugen likely would not accept the credit for the Tribe’s present-day successes. It is true that many people have had a hand in the successes, including the Kalispel Tribal Chairman, Glen Nenema. Haugen is a dynamo driving the Tribe’s success strategies on many fronts: business development, cultural pride and community well-being—never losing sight of the Tribe’s fundamental values.

Before we jump too far ahead in the Kalispel success story, let’s pause to consider what life was once like for Tribal members living on the small Kalispel Reservation. The reservation sits within Pend Oreille County—one of the poorest in the state—along 10 miles of the Pend Oreille River. Not too long ago, many on the reservation lived a subsistence lifestyle in challenging conditions: dirt floors, unreliable utilities, no running water and limited access to good education and medical facilities. Every necessity was a hard-to-come-by commodity, as was hope for any progress.

Haugen characterizes the Kalispel Tribe as welcoming and hospitable people. A glimpse into the Tribe’s history also reveals the Kalispel are tenacious. In the latter half of the 19th century, the federal government established reservations for most Native American Tribes. The Kalispel people resisted being moved onto a reservation in Montana, holding out for more favorable terms and broader access to traditional, revered lands that sprawled 200 miles along the course of the Pend Oreille River in Washington. As settlers moved in and began to homestead, this left the Kalispels without federal protection. It wasn’t until 1914 that the Kalispel Reservation was established along a section of the river that’s a small fraction of the Tribe’s former territory.

After generations of isolation, poverty, unemployment, poor housing and limited economic opportunities on their rural reservation, Tribal Chairman Glen Nenema and other Kalispel elders knew that they had to create their own opportunities for any change to come about.

In 1994, the federal government granted the Kalispel Tribe a rare exception to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in the form of 40 acres of trust land in Airway Heights, near the Spokane International Airport—land that is not contiguous with the reservation. The land available to the Kalispels on their reservation is not suitable for large-scale construction, as it sits on a flood plain and backs up against the side of a mountain. In 2000, Northern Quest Resort & Casino opened its doors on the Airway Heights site. At first, Tribal elders resisted the idea of a casino, but it soon became clear that, if managed with vision and the Tribe’s values at the heart of the enterprise, it would be the path to a better life for Tribal members and even benefit the surrounding communities.

The Kalispel story is about the journey from subsistence to self-sustaining prosperity. Chairman Nenema—the longest serving Tribal Chair in the country—describes the necessary ingredients for this journey: “Many of the things our Tribe has accomplished happened over many years. Things take time, vision and patience, and leaders need consistency in order to make things happen.”

Enter Phil Haugen. Half Norwegian-American and half Kalispel, Haugen was raised with each foot in a different world. After college, a teaching career, and time in federal law enforcement—Haugen was one of the few Tribal members to graduate from college at the time—he began his gaming and hospitality career as the Executive Director of the Tribal Gaming Authority for the Kalispel Tribe. He built a department that became the model for all other Tribal gaming agencies. During Haugen’s career at Northern Quest, he served as assistant manager during a crucial project that expanded the casino and added a 250-room hotel with a four-star rating. Later, as general manager, he profitably led the resort through a treacherous economic downturn.

Building on his reputation of growing the Tribe’s economy, even during a recession, Haugen assumed the role of Chief Operating Officer for the Kalispel Tribal Economic Authority in 2014. Under his leadership, the Tribe purchased and opened the Kalispel Golf and Country Club, a premier semi-private golf course in the region. With an entrepreneurial spirit, Haugen continues to launch a diverse portfolio of small businesses for the Tribe. He stands by his belief that business diversification provides a better life for not only the Tribe but also for the entire community.

For Haugen, it’s all about people. As a former basketball coach, mentoring and coaching is in his DNA. “I try to create a culture where every team member feels special,” he says. “You have to take the time to show your appreciation.”

When asked how the Tribe’s business successes have benefited Tribal members, Haugen jokes, “We all drive better cars now.”

All kidding aside, the Tribe’s financial success has created the 77,000-square-foot Camas Center for Community Wellness in Usk, open to Tribal members and non-members. The Center makes a distinct difference in the quality of life in this rural area, with a medical and dental clinic, daycare, fitness and recreation center and more. Other changes on the reservation include better education, social services such as counseling and programs to preserve the Salish language.

“What we’re doing now will have a positive effect for seven generations,” Haugen says. He’s referring not only to the benefits for the Tribe but also for the community. All Tribal members have medical coverage, and elders (55 and older) receive a pension. At one time, it was rare for a Kalispel Tribal member to go on to higher education; today, more than 40 out of nearly 500 Tribal members attend university. The Kalispel Tribe of Indians donates more than $1 million a year to local charities and is one of the largest private employers in Spokane County, with non-Tribal employees making up 80 percent of the employee population.

“We’re becoming a much healthier Tribe,” says Haugen. He knows this first-hand: He serves on the Board of Directors for Camas Path, an agency that works to improve the quality of life for Kalispel Tribal and community members by addressing the intellectual, emotional, physical and cultural needs of individuals, through education, training and wellness programs.

Tribal Chairman Nenema says, “Phil was one of the Kalispel Tribe’s first college graduates. His rise to this level of leadership is a true success story for our Tribe and the realization of what our vision was all about.”

Today, thanks to Haugen and other Kalispel leaders like him, hope for the Kalispel people is no longer a rarity.