Shoalwater Bay Tribal Chair Charlene Nelson’s Role

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

                                                                                                  –Lord Acton

It is hard to understand how the WSP contract debacle could have happened without some explanation about the Shoalwater Bay workplace, its connection to tribal government, as well as the tendency to skirt Constitutional checks and balances and work around the enforcement of tribal law and policy with consistency and lack of favoritism.

Along with this, it is also necessary to explore how the Council Chair used the sometimes unethical and toxic environment at the Tribal Center to her advantage. To manage this environment, the Chair relied heavily on directly swaying the tribal administration, mainly using her position to influence those who make decisions about jobs, opportunities, and resources.

Direct influence within the workplace was a crucial way that Charlene has exerted and maintained her influence within the tribal community. To understand this aspect of tribal politics, it is necessary to look at how the Chair used her position to either benefit supporters and, at the opposite end, to harm those she considered as detrimental to her in some way.

Though less overt in practice, but still significant, is the way that Charlene has used the power of the Shoalwater Bay tribal government as an institution (i.e., tribal lawyers, connections to the Tribal Administrator, Human Resources, and other directors, including police pressure) to achieve negative ends against those she disagrees with and/or views as harmful to her interests.

On the benefits end, the Chair was very adept at arranging lucrative and politically beneficial positions within the tribal workplace; working out positive deals for her supporters or those she wanted or needed as allies. The grooming of upper-level administration contacts was a must in overcoming some of the obstacles she encountered within the Shoalwater Bay community and workplace.

In her quest to achieve these goals (just before she was instrumental in the hiring of Mike Rogers) she had placed herself in the position of interim Tribal Administrator. In this way, the Chair formally assumed direct powers associated with the Tribal Administrator position and has continued in this direction throughout her tenure at Shoalwater Bay.

It should be said that Charlene did not invent the system. Before the danger of allowing individual Council members direct and unhampered influence was exposed, the practice was more common than many are willing to admit; and many within the tribal community did not fully realize the hazards of ignoring Constitutional mandates and bylaws that prohibited the practice.

When Mike Rogers becomes Tribal Administrator

Soon after Mike Rogers was hired Charlene began to spend time with the new Tribal Administrator in morning meetings discussing events, employees, and other happenings within the workplace and making suggestions. Only relatively recently has this changed. Council severely limited private meetings with administrators and managers due to bad press, lawsuits, and scandals that resulted.

While it is true that Charlene did not invent the process, with the support of Mike Rogers she was able to take it to a completely different level. Consequently, before the WSP debacle Charlene solidified a connection to the administration in a way that had not been available to her even when she took to calling herself the interim Tribal Administrator (shortly before Rogers was given the position).

One of the central obligations of the Tribal Council as a body is the direct oversight of the Tribal Administrator; it is a Constitutional duty to do so on behalf of the health and welfare of tribal members. Unfortunately, as time went on the Chair progressively took on the powers given to Council alone and used them as an individual.

When this happens, all the powers of Tribal Council and many reserved for the Tribal Administration were exercised without much interference in terms of oversight, discussion, transparency, and the balance of powers that the Shoalwater Bay Constitution requires of its tribal leaders. 

The Washington State Patrol Context

The way that the Washington State Patrol debacle was implemented and handled is very consistent with the process and system that Rogers and Charlene had mastered and perfected far above their predecessors. It was an atmosphere where tribal policy and law took a back seat to the institutional powers at the Chair’s disposal, such as lawyers, administrators, managers, and in this case, the powers and obligations of a Washington State investigative unit.

Hopefully, this helps to explain the context of the WSP events and also why tribal policy took a secondary role throughout. In short, the Council Chair, the Administrator, and the Human Resource director took the path that they did because the culture of the Tribal Center was so deeply ingrained as to make the course of events a standard way of operating. This is why Lieutenant Padgett could write that, “Mike, Charlene and Jesse were investigating this without my knowledge or Robin’s knowledge.”

Added to the abrasive and unethical culture that Mike Rogers and Charlene had developed at Shoalwater Bay, ignoring tribal policy was possible only if the administration was successful in misleading others through secrecy and misdirection. As long as they could operate without transparency (i.e. maintain secrecy even against General Council) they were able to continue as before.

The only challenge to business as usual happened as a result of the application of Washington State government transparency laws to Shoalwater Bay. Suddenly a hoard of documents were available, giving insight and a wealth of evidence to support what many had suspected all along.

Administration misdirection and misinformation extended to a majority of Council members. Yet, Mike Rogers was able to claim that Council was not only informed but actively involved in all aspects of the WSP investigation from the beginning. “The entire situation was handled behind Robin’s back and without any regard for due process. Whenever a question was asked Rogers would come back with “Council wants” or “Council has decided” I was pretty sure by the end of it Charlene had changed her first name to “Council.”

Several weeks before Council was informed about the WSP contract Lieutenant Padgett had pleaded with Chair Charlene Nelson by email, asking to address Tribal Council directly, “I literally begged Charlene to let me talk to Council and was flat out told no.” Padgett’s experience with the Chair is very consistent with how she has treated many tribal members who want to get on the agenda and speak to our leaders. It is, more than not, a flat out no when it is communicated at all, or the request is not acknowledged and no reply given.

The strict gate-keeping of information and the blocking of two-way communication with the rest of Council was a strong part of Charlene’s aims for tribal government. It was also a hallmark of Mike Rogers’ style of managing tribal members who sought a connection with tribal leadership.