The Nisqually Tribe’s Remarkable Journey to Economic Sovereignty

Nisqually Elders Center Rendering - COVERED SEATING WITHOUT PEOPLE
by Heidi Smith • Images courtesy of KMB Architects

In the decades since the early 1990s, the Nisqually Indian Tribe has transformed itself into a robust economic presence, generating hundreds of regional jobs and contributing millions to local organizations through their charitable giving. By any standard, it’s an outstanding achievement. 

When you consider that Medicine Creek Enterprise Corporation (MCEC), the parent company of multiple Tribal businesses, includes board members whose families remember growing up on the Reservation without electricity or running water, such rapid growth is even more impressive. Today MCEC is one of the largest private employers in Thurston County. More importantly, the expansion has created opportunities for Tribal members to thrive, according to Chief Operations Officer Cheebo Frazier.

Cheebo Frazier, Chief Operations Officer, Medicine Creek Enterprise Corporation

“We’re able to provide medical services, to begin building housing, and to offer educational services to the membership,” says Frazier. “These positive changes are remarkable in that we’re building leaders of the future while making certain we have a solid economy and workforce on the Reservation. We’re meeting the goals the Tribe laid out in their community vision.” 

MCEC oversees a large and growing number of operations, including the Medicine Creek Cafe, Nisqually Markets, Nisqually Post & Print and the Red Wind Casino. They also have expanded beyond Thurston County through Nisqually Construction Services and Nisqually Communication Services. The construction arm does projects at Joint-Base Lewis McChord (JBLM) in Pierce County and the Port of Seattle in King County, while the communications branch works to meet the growing regional demand for T-3 fiber optics.

Within the Reservation, the recently completed Nisqually Health Center expands access to healthcare ranging from wellness checks and dental care to behavioral health and substance abuse prevention, and also provides traditional and cultural healing used by the Nisqually people. “The Tribe is using their construction services to create a sustainable community for the future,” says MCEC Chief of Staff Jayana Marshall.

Jayana Marshall, Chief of Staff, Medicine Creek Enterprise Corporation

Nisqually Tribal businesses have come a long way from where they started. In the late 1980s, the Tribe had just one operation on the Reservation known as the Smoke Shop. By the early ’90s, they had added a bingo hall, which then morphed into the Red Wind Casino. Around the same period, one gas station with a convenience store opened. 

“Initially, when the Tribe began running for-profit businesses, it was about creating employment for the Nisqually Indian Reservation,” says Frazier. “Now when we think about expansion, we’ve outgrown what we can do on the Reservation. We’re open to looking at what types of businesses would create an ecosystem that would be helpful for the Tribe to maintain their sovereignty and self-sufficiency.” 

As an example, the Post & Print store is the result of the Tribe’s other businesses needing direct mail resources and services. Today, the need is for storage facilities, another potential the Tribe is exploring. 

In the future, the goal is to lessen dependency on gaming as a funding source. “We’re not certain how long gaming is going to be the primary revenue generator,” Frazier maintains. “The Tribe wants to have more of a workforce development presence for our local and surrounding communities and to be a good neighbor and business partner.” 

Tribal leadership is also rethinking tobacco and fuel sales, according to Marshall. “They’re still performing well, but a downtrend in smokers and multiple articles predict that by the year 2035, the population of smokers is going to decrease significantly. We all see that electric cars are the new trend, so we’re strategizing what the needs will be in the future and how we can create businesses to meet those needs.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted those plans, forcing a recalibration of priorities and immediate goals. Like many regional businesses, the Nisqually Tribe is dealing with supply chain issues and staffing shortages but they’re still looking ahead. 

Charles “Bob” Iyall, CEO, Medicine Creek Enterprise Corporation

“The Tribe is working on a master planning initiative to rest ourselves and say, ‘What is our concept for the future? How prepared are we and how do we get there?’” says Frazier. “MCEC is doing the same, looking at our five-year operational plan and setting some goals to make certain we have steps laid out so we can continue this path of growth.”

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