How the Squaxin Island Tribe Became an Economic Powerhouse in the Region

by Heidi Smith

When the Squaxin Island Tribe was initially considering building a hotel, several tribal members had the same question during public hearings. Could the Tribe afford to do it? Executive Director Ray Peters’ answer was simple.
“I said, ‘We can’t afford not to,'” he recalls.

Flash forward to 2022 and the Squaxin Island Tribe is the largest employer in Mason County. Aside from the Little Creek Casino Resort, they operate Clam Fresh and Salish Seafoods, Skookum Creek Tobacco, Native Sun Grown and Elevations, plus two trading posts and a business center. It all started with what Peters calls the ‘monumental decision’ to add the resort. He credits the Tribe’s dynamic budget process with allowing everyone in the community to understand how the resort would work within the strategic plan. “Our budget process allowed us to communicate in a way that showed the added revenues that would result and how we could differentiate ourselves,” he says. “Things have grown from there.” 

Each new business is connected to the overall goal of creating a diverse tax base that supports tribal infrastructure. “The tax base is very important for the health, safety and welfare of the people,” says Peters. “The revenues that come from that diversification fund important services like law enforcement, community development, planning, and court systems. Those funds stay in Mason County.” 

The Tribe has made several innovative moves to reach that goal. Skookum Creek Tobacco not only sells the product, it produces it at an 80,000 square foot manufacturing facility.

“We manufacture cigarettes on our property, and that allows us to keep the tax revenue,” says General Manager Mike Araiza. “Manufacturing machinery comes out of either Italy or England, so we’re very fortunate to have some talented individuals who have worked in aerospace engineering and diesel hydraulics mechanics that can reverse engineer parts.” 

When Washington State legalized cannabis, the Tribe was inundated with business proposals, says Peters. They chose to open not only a retail store, Elevations, but also a growing facility, Native Sun Grown, which would allow them to reap a greater return on investment. 


The decision to add a golf course made Little Creek Casino Resort one of a handful of tribal-owned properties in Washington State to combine three attractions and make the resort a tourist destination. The golf course uses reclaimed water from a state-of-the-art treatment facility and the Tribe earned the first ‘Salmon-Safe Golf Course’ certification through the Seattle-based nonprofit Stewardship Partners for their efforts.

Adding the golf course fulfilled multiple priorities, according to Little Creek Casino Resort CEO Ramon Nunez. “We are off the beaten path in relation to some of our competitors in Western Washington,” he explains. “It makes sense for us to use things like the golf course to draw people here. Then we looked at how many jobs that would create for our community and what that contributes to the quality of life for both the Tribe and the people in the surrounding area. Obviously, we also want to generate income. There are a lot of stakeholders that are relying on us, and we take that very seriously.”

Aside from creating employment, the casino powers the Tribe’s charitable arm, which has donated over $5 million to local nonprofits through grants. Recently the casino partnered with the Girl Scouts, purchasing 10,000 boxes of Girl Scout cookies which they gave away to guests. “It was a good promotion and our guests really enjoyed it,” says Nunez. “We’re always looking to sponsor or donate to charitable organizations.”

Little Creek is continuing its expansion in 2022, adding a food court that will include pizza, Chinese food, and steak options. The Water’s Edge Cafe will also increase its seating and the Starlight Lounge will become a combined sports viewing venue and nightclub. 

Skookum Creek Tobacco plans to add cigars to its product selection while exploring new ways to generate income in the future. Considering the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s increasingly stringent regulation of tobacco, Araiza believes that diversifying is the best way to ensure longevity. “I feel what I owe to my Tribe and my employees is to look at other manufacturing businesses we can transition to that will allow us to take advantage of our employee expertise,” he says. “Maybe it’s not cigarettes, but what else is out there that would make money and provide a tax advantage for the tribe?” 

Managing Skookum Creek is a second career for Araiza, who retired from working in city government in Oregon. “I was happy to have the opportunity to come back and work for my Tribe,” he says. “Being able to come home and see how much the tribe has grown and flourished has been exciting.”

Categories: ,

Other News

Upcoming Events

Picture your ad here!

Picture your ad here

Both rectangle and banner ad spaces are available for members. Download our sizes and pricing sheet for more information by clicking the button below.