Indian Gaming Advocate of the Year 2011: W. Ron Allen

With roots in tribal gaming and other affairs dating back to the 1970s, W. Ron Allen certainly is one of the most seasoned and influential leaders in Indian country today. This “warrior” has served countless roles in working to advance the rights of Native Americans, and his dedication is tireless. So much so that NIGA chairman himself Ernie Stevens Jr. was mentored under him as a younger tribal councilman.

Stevens announced Allen’s award and recognition as the 2011 Indian Gaming Advocate of the Year at the annual Northwest Indian Gaming Conference in July. “A lot of people look at me as one of the most traveled people in Indian country, but I learned from the best,” Stevens told CEM, “and Ron Allen has sacrificed a lot for Indian country in terms of his work ethic. I really thank his tribe, the Jamestown S’Klallam people. Ron is a shining example, but he would not be able to be the working leader that he is without their support.”

Stevens got to know Allen in his 30s when he was a “young fiery tribal councilman.” “I wanted to break barriers, go in record time, get things done immediately if not sooner,” he recalled.

“Ron was one to get me to slow down and work on it, make sure that whatever I do has my best effort in it. He taught me a lot about basic foundation and principles and discipline of working with tribes and in Washington, D.C. That’s something I needed. He helped me to understand the magnitude of the responsibility when you’re elected to a national office and you serve hundreds of tribes to act in their best interests first and foremost.”

Stevens says one of the most notable things about Allen is that he’s a contemporary leader, who, at the same time, has been around long enough to have worked with and learned from the some of the best tribal leaders past and present, working side by side with these influential advocates.

This is evident in some of the people Allen mentioned as his influences—Joe de la Cruz, Mel Tonasket, Billy Frank Jr., Roger Jordain, Philip Martin, even Wendell Chino. “Many of these folks have passed on and some are still with us,” Allen said. “Those are individuals, and there are many others, women as well, that have inspired me to move in this direction. They’re kind of like spiritual inspiration.”

But always remaining humble, Allen doesn’t forget to credit the work of others in spite of his own achievements. Answering his reaction to learning of the award, he said: “It’s one of those announcements that you didn’t know was coming. I was surprised and very honored at the same time. For me, those kinds of recognitions are awkward because I like doing what I do for tribes and our rights. I’m not real interested in these awards because in so many of them, my colleagues do the same thing I do.”

However, Allen adds that it is important for Indian country to recognize its leaders who are out there in the frontline fighting for sovereignty and the rights of tribes to pursue their goals, while knowing they’re appreciated by their colleagues. “I think it’s a way for Indian country to say ‘thank you, we appreciate your efforts and your work and leadership,’ ” he noted. “Hopefully it will encourage and inspire others to do the same.”

There’s no doubt Allen himself has and will continue to inspire others. As Stevens said: “There are a lot of leaders who influenced my life and role in Indian country and Washington, D.C., and Ron is a very significant part of that. He’s even tempered, fair, balanced. Someone you can trust. Ron is someone who has given his life to Indian country and I have a lot of great respect for him.”

Today, Allen sits as the chairman of the Washington Indian Gaming Association—since 2003—and chairman since 1977 and CEO since 1982 of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe. But his experience dates back decades and includes a storied list of accomplishments on a variety of fronts. An early involvement is with the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), serving many roles including treasurer (his current role), secretary, president, first vice chairman and delegate throughout the years.

There are also several non-gaming involvements and passions he has, as he reminded that he isn’t solely focused on gaming, but that he is focused on tribal governance, being all elements of Indian country’s interest and rights. Some of these including being tribal commissioner since 1996 for the Pacific Salmon Commission; co-chairman and delegate for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Tribal Technical Advisory Group since 2003; treasurer and delegate for the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians since 1977; co-chairman for the National Indian Policy Center at George Washington University from 1990 to 1996; and founder and delegate for the American Indian Health Commission for Washington State since 1994.

Allen is also the Northwest representative for the Department of Justice, dealing with all the issues and programs that are emerging for the benefit of tribes, from incarceration facilities to cops programs to programs that address violence against Native women. “It’s a matter of causing the Department of Justice to become a stronger player as a federal department with respect to public safety matters in Indian reservations to start closing the gap on injustices that Indian people experience in their respective communities,” he explained.

His professional accomplishments are many and quite notable. Just some of them include leading a 1994 historic White House meeting with President Clinton and tribal leaders, and serving as the co-chairman of a meeting one year later with the Clinton administration and tribal leaders that resulted in the White House Inter-Governmental Office acknowledging tribal governments consistent with state and other local governments.

He was chairman of the Tribal Legislative Drafting Committee to develop self-governance legislation within both the Department of Interior and the Department of Health and Human Services, which resulted in two separate public laws in 1994 and 2000.

He’s also been fairly involved with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), including serving as a tribal representative on the BIA’s Tribal Budget Advisory Committee since 1992, as tribal co-chairman of its Data Management Subcommittee Data, and as co-chairman of its Tribal Workgroup on Tribal Needs Assessment.

In addition, he served as chairman of the NCAI National Policy Workgroup on Contract Support Costs and co-chairman of the 1987 publication, “Determining the True Cost of Contracting Federal Programs for Indian Tribes.”

On the state level, he has served as co-chairman of the NCAI National Council of State Legislators Advisory Committee since 1998.

In 1988 when the gaming movement emerged and IGRA was passed, it was the same time as the emergence of the self-governance movement as the result of fraud and misuse of federal Indian programs by the federal government, Allen added. “My tribe was one of the first 10 tribes that opened up that new movement. I’ve been very much involved with the legislation as it has continued to grow and evolve over the last 20 years.”

This is by no means the first award Allen has received in recognition of his tireless work in Indian country. The University of Washington (Allen’s alma mater) gave him the 2001 Distinguished Alumnus Award and the 2009 Charles E. Odegaard Award for work on behalf of diversity; he was named by the University of Washington’s Columns Magazine one of the “Wondrous One Hundred most remarkable University of Washington alumni;” and at the Reservation Economic Summit 2007 American Indian Business Achievement Awards Committee, he was named the Public Advocate of the Year.

Stevens said about Allen, “The important thing about is that he tries to feel the faults of the tribes and do what is best for the tribal leadership overall.”

This is evident in Allen’s outlook on the various issues he’s been around for. And he has been involved in some major gaming industry periods of time, including the Cabazon case and IGRA.

“At the time IGRA emerged, I was very aware of the sensitivity of the tribal leadership,” Allen recalled, “that they were worried about the diminishment and erosion of our sovereignty, empowering the state’s role with the tribes. It’s always been a big issue for me in terms of how each tribe would negotiate its compacts. I’ve been very involved in every one of those different matters, whether it’s threats to try and erode tribal sovereignty through amendments of IGRA or it’s encroachment on tribal jurisdiction with regard to regulatory commitments or relationships between the tribes and the state.”

What Allen says he likes most about the gaming industry is that it has done the most for tribes and their community as far as building up their business expertise and creating insulating political structures to protect their interests. “That’s not to say other industries weren’t emerging and experiencing their own level of successes, but I think the gaming industry changed the tribes and our business expertise foundation more than anything else,” he explained. “I’m very delighted in seeing the success.”

“There are other opportunities and progressive developments that the gaming industry has caused for Indian country,” he added. “Particularly, it has allowed the tribes to have not just resources to address the community needs, but the resources to diversity their economic foundation portfolio—to now start entertaining and venturing into other industries so that all their eggs aren’t in just the gaming basket. It’s more diversified business and professional employment opportunities for their community.”

And what Allen is most proud of relates to his own tribe’s advancements, noting that the gaming industry has caused the tribe as a government to become much better organized and focused on its own governance. He calls it the “legal-political infrastructure.” “The sophistication of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe’s system is I think right up there with the best of the best of Indian country in terms of getting our government in order so that there is better certainty and clarity about rights, interest and processes … so that you’re protecting the interest of the non-Indian sector as well as your own tribal community.”

He added that: “I am also proud, almost on equal standing, that the success of the gaming operation—even though we are small relative to some of the more lucrative and successful operations that exist in Indian country—the mere fact that it has made a huge difference in terms of the kinds of services we can provide to our community, from education to health care to housing to land acquisition. Those are really neat developments that have unfolded for us at a rate that we never would have been able to achieve if we only had the federal government to depend on.”

One thing that not only sets Allen apart, but is also one of his prides, is how accessible he is. Embracing the technology era, he views it as tool in which to better communicate. He explained he’s typically up at 5 a.m. to start the day and always has his laptop with him regardless of where he is, and is constantly checking his e-mail and responding to messages. Even if he doesn’t have time to write a long e-mail, he knows the importance of letting people know he hasn’t forgotten about them and is working to get them an answer. “Communication is the heart of almost any kind of management of your affairs and responsibilities,” he noted.

Though Allen has an extremely busy life, he reminds that he does rest. On the slow work days, he enjoys playing catch-up and organizing files and documents. Probably an understatement, Allen said: “An average day for me is probably not average for a lot of people. I am a bit of a workaholic, but I love what I do and I’ve always loved it. My world moves fast and it is what it is for me. But I do have down time.”

When he’s not working, there’s a good chance you’d catch Allen catching up on his sports. In his down time, he checks up on his favorite sports teams and says he loves them all—football, baseball, basketball, tennis, golf and more. He also enjoys watching movies and listening to music—all kinds of course!

Growing up, Allen’s father was Indian (which is where the “W” for William in his name comes from); his mother Scottish-Irish and was the oldest of four sons. He grew up in the village as a baby but eventually moved away to a community where his father found employment. “We never had a lot of money,” he remembered. “We were one of those typical Indian families that didn’t know we were poor. We just made do and always had a strong work ethic.”

He also recalled his young adulthood, noting he came out of the ‘60s movement and the Vietnam era. “When I finally went back to college in my mid-20s, I decided blue-collar work was not my cup of tea and I was interested in something better,” he recalled. “I loved college from the perspective that universities were universal education. I was one of those guys that dabbled in a lot of different departments. Even though my major was economics and political science, I was in accounting, architecture, communications, history, I was all over the map.”

Shortly after, he married his wife Merine and went on to have two children, a son who is now 28 and also works with the tribe, and a daughter who is 26 and pregnant with Allen’s first grandchild.

Around this time is when the Jamestown tribe became recognized. Allen became chairman and was on the tribal council in 1974. “Our sister tribes, Lower Elwha and Port Gamble S’Klallam, were both recognized and they knew that we were a very distinct band from their bands of S’ Klallam people,” Allen explained. “The council had asked me to participate and assist in the recognition process.”

He says the BIA’s federal recognition process was just emerging in the mid ‘70s and didn’t have a firm criteria and processes until the late ‘70s. “I was working with some pro-bono lawyers who helped us put our application in and I was running around all these different garages and attics of our tribal leaders to track down information to put our package together,” he said. “Interestingly enough, and partially because of the strong support of local tribes, we emerged 19th in the Q-list, and they moved us up to No. 2 behind the Grand Traverse Tribe in Michigan. They wanted to use both of our tribes as models because we fit the criteria so well.”

Finally in 1981, his tribe became formally recognized—the same time Allen was finishing college. “At the time, I thought it was going to be very temporary. It wasn’t, and it unfolded into the role I play today as the chairman and CEO for our tribe,” he said.

Allen said when he was younger; he didn’t know what his calling in life would be. All those areas he studied in college interested him, but he didn’t have that sense of purpose. “The purpose emerged when I got engaged with the tribe,” he said. “It didn’t happen right away. As I became more aware of what the tribe needed to do as a government and how to pursue its self reliance and self determination goals, that started to get better traction for me. That’s when my dreams started emerging. And it kept getting clearer and broader—not just in the tribal perspective, but all the entities, NCAI, NIGA, WIGA. Now I think about them non-stop.”

Probably what keeps Allen so motivated is simply knowing the end goal of his efforts. “Indian country has always been a set of communities within the United States that is out of sight out of mind for the most part,” he said. “America, even though it has a long standing historical and legal obligation to the Indian tribes, has never really stepped up and done what they could or should. For me, it means that we need to do it. Getting there means doing it in a balanced way, effective as a government and protecting your unique cultural identity. That always has inspired me. I can’t begin to explain why I have this energy to allow me to stay engaged and be intrigued by it and have not lost my passion for pursuing that goal for each and every tribe. When I’m done, I want to sit on my rocking chair and say I did my part.”

We’re pretty confident that shouldn’t be a problem at all.

The advice Allen has for emerging leaders is to learn how to communicate. “I think that strengthens your attention span, learning how to be a communicator at all levels, either oral or writing. Those skills are highly undervalued, and you don’t realize their value until you try and make things happen. Regardless of the field of expertise they’re going into, if you’re trying to make things better, you’ve got to communicate.”

Allen’s goals for the future on a personal level are to become a better and more effective leader, and professionally to see the tribes become stronger and more effective as well. And as long as Allen is behind them, we know it’s a bright future for Indian country.

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