Native American leader Brian Cladoosby is a hard man to pin down, possibly because he is continually working to improve the lives of his tribe, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, and of indigenous people everywhere. Cladoosby, 59, has been tribal chairman since 1997 and recently finished three years as president of the National Council of American Indians, where he lobbied President Obama and other officials on behalf of the interests of all tribal nations. Cladoosby is considered one of the most senior tribal leaders in Washington state. He lives with the approximately 1,000 members on the Swinomish reservation around La Conner, which includes 7,450 acres of upland, 2,900 acres of tideland, and a profitable casino in Anacortes.
Cladoosby (pronounced kla-duhs-bee) has led tribal efforts to protect a diminishing salmon population, Indian fishing rights, and tribal sovereignty. He also has fought opioid addiction among his people, sued drug companies, and opposed a controversial oil pipeline proposed through Indian land in North Dakota.
Leadership and activism dates back two generations in his family. His great-great grandfather, Kel-Kahl-Tsoot, signed the Treaty of Point Elliot in 1855, which gave the native people of the Puget Sound their land. His grandfather served on the Swinomish Tribal Council more than 24 years. After graduating from Skagit Valley College, Cladoosby knew it was his calling to be the leader of the Swinomish people.
On an international level, he has been the co-chair of the Coast Salish Gathering, which brings together British Columbia First Nations and western Washington tribes. He has been an outspoken voice for treaty rights which, he feels, are being broken due to environmental pollution. He testified on behalf of the Swinomish, along with Lummi, Suquamish, and Tulalip in Canada to their National Energy Board to voice concern about building an oil pipeline and the impact it will have. “The air, water and soil never had a voice,” he tells me. “We’re at a breaking point, and the environment can’t handle what it’s being dealt right now. Our Swinomish community wants to bring awareness to the industry, those in government and in the community that we need to seriously look at what we want to leave for our children in the seventh generation.”
Locally, Cladoosby says he is “destroying generations of historical trauma starting at home—whether that’s the family home or the community home.” Under his leadership, the Swinomish created full-ride college scholarships for students, instituted a free braces program for children, and opened the largest heroin and opioid treatment center in the Northwest for tribal and non-tribal people. He says, “To see our families raising their kids, getting off welfare, getting off food stamps, becoming productive members of society, it’s just awesome to witness.”
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