Rebuilding His Community
by Carolyn Shea
Ron Charles ’97 has led the Port Gamble S’Klallam tribe into a brighter future.
Ron Charles was instrumental in the construction of the House of Knowledge complex, including the first S'Klallam longhouse built in more than 100 years.
Ron Charles '97 keeps busy since he retired from office this past summer-for the second time. "I've never been one to sit around," remarks the longtime chairman of the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe.
Charles began serving as tribal chairman in the early 1970s, holding the title until 1987, when he stepped down the first time. For the next dozen years, he worked as a commercial fisherman, raised his family with his wife Sharon, sat on the tribal council and pursued his liberal arts degree-with a focus on tribal governance-through the reservation-based community-determined program Evergreen offers at Port Gamble. He graduated in 1997 at age 54, along with his daughter Marlo. Two other daughters, Michelle Jones '95 and Christina Moff '04, also graduated from the program.
"If it wasn't for the reservation-based program, I probably wouldn't have gotten my degree because I would have to go elsewhere, which would have been really difficult," says Charles. "A lot of the things we focused on in the class and in the assignments we did were relevant to what was going on within the tribe and Indian country at the time and helped me when I took over the full-time position of chair."
A couple years after completing his studies, the father of four and grandfather of 12 again ran for the chairmanship and was reelected-a feat that was repeated over the next decade, until he decided not to run again this year. All told, Charles has led his people for nearly a quarter of a century-through very hard times and much better ones.
In the early days, he says, "Most western Washington tribes were dirt poor and didn't have any resources. They barely had tribal offices, there was no law enforcement and our tribe did very little fishing because our fishing rights had not yet been adjudicated."
Today, the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe has a tribal government center, a court and a police department, and it provides a wide array of services-including fiber-optic Internet service-to community residents, from early childhood to old age. Leading the tribe has become a full time job. With a number of businesses in operation, including several treaty-endowed fishing enterprises, a casino, and a market, it has become one of the largest employers in northern Kitsap County. As one of the country's first "self-governance" tribes, it controls programs once administered by federal agencies such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Service.
Charles is especially proud of the House of Knowledge, a four-building complex containing the first S'Klallam longhouse to be constructed in more than a century. Completed in 2007 after eight years of planning, fundraising and hard work, the $4.5 million center includes an elders' center, a career and education center, and a library. Charles considers it a tribute to how far the tribe has come. "It's just amazing," he says. "In my lifetime, things have changed so dramatically. We couldn't have envisioned having something like this when I was a kid. But we did it."
The project reached its finale with the completion of the new, 2,700-square-foot Little Boston Library, which serves about 25,000 patrons
per year. The original branch, housed in a 600-square-foot A-frame cabin, was the state's first reservation-based library. It opened in 1974 at the behest of Charles, who loved bookmobiles as a child. In 1999, the Public Library Association awarded it the "Excellence in Small and/or Rural Public Library Service Award." Included in its collection are more than 700 books about Native American history, art and tradition. A copy of the original treaty between the S'Klallam Tribe and the U.S. Government is on display. Charles says the branch is "used as much by the non-Indian community as by our community."
Under Charles' leadership, the tribe acquired an extra 390 acres of land adjacent to the 1,340-acre Port Gamble reservation, located along Hood Canal. The parcel was put up for public auction by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources in 2004, nearly 150 years after the S'Klallams lost title to more than 438,000 acres of ancestral land. Charles calls the gain "important to the tribe's people and its future."
As for his own future, Charles is undecided at this point. "I'm taking a little time. I don't think I'm ready to completely retire. I'll do a little fishing and after that I'll probably go back to work doing something." Undoubtedly, that "something" will involve building new prospects for his people.
The Reservation-Based Community-Determined Program
Two decades ago, Evergreen launched its unique reservation-based community-determined program to improve college access to underserved Native Americans living on various reservations in western Washington. Designed in partnership with the tribes, this distance-education program combines online and on-site classes to give place-bound students the opportunity to pursue an interdisciplinary liberal arts degree. In 2007, the Lumina Foundation funded the Enduring Legacies Project, a collaboration between Evergreen and other institutional and tribal partners to align coursework and create a more seamless pathway to a bachelor's degree for Native American students in Washington state.