August 20, 2010
From Outsider to Insider: Matt Mattson ’00 has spent a decade helping to rebuild the Snoqualmie Nation
This is the first in a weekly series of stories profiling Oregon Law alumni whose class reunions occur this fall.
Have you ever nervously spoken to a group of individuals and, in an attempt to reassure yourself, scanned the room for that one person flashing even a half-smile that could put your mind at ease? Matt Mattson never found that person during his 45-minute interview with members of the Snoqualmie Nation’s tribal council back in 2000.
After being sent home by whom he describes as the intimidating, stone-faced members of the council, the Oregon Law graduate, who was preparing for the bar examination, resigned himself to the fact that his job searching wasn’t over yet. Much to his surprise, however, Mattson received a call from the tribe asking when he could start.
“The tribe took a chance on me, and I took a chance on them,” Mattson says. “Ten years later, it seems to have worked out.”
Mattson was initially hired as an attorney where, as a 2008 Seattle Times article notes, he was “’ working out of a garage furnished with an AstroTurf rug and kerosene heater’ ” Mattson now is the tribal administrator for the Snoqualmie Nation — a position he says is much like that of an executive director.
“I was first hired on as an attorney primarily concerned with infrastructure building. That morphed into anything and everything. Part of working with a tribe is that you wear many hats,” he notes.
According to Mattson, it is very common these days for tribes to hire in-house counsel due to the complex relationships that must be managed at the local, state, and federal government levels. As tribes become more complex entities, he says, they need more attorneys on staff. Currently, Mattson works with two additional in-house attorneys and an outside attorney as well.
While Indian Law wasn’t something he was particularly interested in at the time, Mattson says the prospect of helping the tribe mold and build a brand new government seemed fascinating. The Snoqualmie Indians were re-recognized by the United States government just prior to Mattson’s hiring. Being a non-native and not having had much exposure to the Native American way of life, though, posed several challenges to Mattson in his early days with the Snoqualmie.
“When you work with a tribe, you realize that you’re a guest,” Mattson notes. “As someone who did not grow up around tribal communities, I made a lot of mistakes and the tribe cut me some slack. We had to sort of feel each other out in the beginning.”
Tribes tend to feel that they are in a fishbowl, Mattson explains. For that reason, he says his youth was an asset in his being hired — an elder told him there was no sense that Mattson was judging or studying the tribe.
Not all tribe members were happy to be working with someone outside the Snoqualmie Nation, though.
“There was an elder on the council who did not speak to me for the first year-and-a-half I was there,” Mattson recalls. “When she finally opened up, she told me that when she was younger, her parents taught her to be distrustful of non-natives. It took her more than a year to actually feel comfortable with me. I really had to earn the trust of many members.”
This hesitance and distrust isn’t surprising when looking at the history of the Snoqualmie Nation. The people of the Snoqualmie Tribe inhabited the Puget Sound region long before early explorers ventured into the Northwest. Historically, tribal members have lived in the areas of Washington’s East King and Snohomish Counties. In 1855, the Snoqualmie signed the Point Elliott Treaty, which created a government-to-government relationship between the United States and the Snoqualmie Tribe, and the tribe ceded all of its land between Snoqualmie Pass and Marysville to the U.S. government. The tribe lost federal recognition in 1953, when federal policies limited recognition only to tribes having reservations. It wasn’t until 1999, after 46 years of petitioning, that the tribe was re-recognized and granted Snoqualmie Nation tribal status. Recognition meant the tribe had the right to acquire its initial reservation land and to develop a casino to help fund the costs of tribal governance, administration, and services to its members.
Developing the casino was a major undertaking for the Snoqualmie and Mattson, who was fresh out of law school. They took a chance and borrowed roughly $375 million to finance the 170,000 square-foot casino complete with 1,700 slot machines and five restaurants, and located 30 minutes from Seattle, inside one of Washington’s wealthiest areas.
The Snoqualmie Casino opened in November 2008. It’s been a tough start according to Mattson, but business is steadily improving, the casino has gained footing, and he remains comfortable that all will be okay.
“I still think the tribe did the right thing by opening a world-class casino,” Mattson says. “I see this as a long-term generational project for the tribal community. After generations of poverty and despair, I want to see tribal members have the chance to follow their hopes and dreams.”
Mattson credits his legal education with providing a strong professional foundation that helped him weather the struggles of developing a casino and rebuilding a tribe.
“My legal training taught me how to think creatively and to be flexible. It would have been easy for me to be paralyzed when I first started with the tribe, but after three years of law school, I wasn’t overwhelmed by the challenge.”
After ten years, Mattson has gone from someone knowing very little about tribal communities, let alone the Snoqualmie people in particular, to someone who has a true stake in the success of the tribe — who wants to see prosperity for future Snoqualmie generations.
“I have had the opportunity and chance to make a difference. I am humbled and honored everyday to be a guest,” he says. “Everyday I work with a group to restore this tribe that was inappropriately disenfranchised from their land to a position of prominence. This land, the Snoqualmie Valley, was named for them.”
In addition to his duties with the Snoqualmie Tribe, Matt Mattson serves as Vice President of the Board for the Chris Elliott Fund for Glioblastoma Brain Cancer Research, as an executive board member of the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, and as legal counsel to the Global Diabetes Alliance.