Tribe's first employee sees and makes history

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CARNATION - Matt Mattson has experienced the historical significance of being the first employee of a nation.

As tribal administrator for the Snoqualmie Tribe, Mattson has seen history happen and has helped make it happen for the Carnation-based Native American group. Although the Snoqualmie Tribe has Valley roots deeper than any white settler in Washington, it has only been recognized by the federal government as a tribe since 1999. In the years since, Mattson has been working to get the Tribe as established in the Valley socially as it has been historically.

"I can be part of hopefully transforming this tribe and getting the Tribe into a position where it can be self-sufficient and survive into perpetuity," he said.

Mattson grew up in upstate New York in a small town called Green River. He went to preparatory school in Massachusetts and then to George Washington University in Washington D.C. While living in D.C. he interned at the White House, gathering news articles that covered President Bill Clinton.

"I didn't know Monica Lewinski," Mattson said, answering the first question that is always asked after people find out where he worked.

The more rewarding job for Mattson was one he had before his White House internship at the Smithsonian Institution. Mattson worked with a scientist, Thomas Lovejoy, who had devised a plan in the 1980s that allowed developing countries to have their debt to wealthy creditor countries forgiven if they preserved natural spaces.

Mattson, who was not a big fan of the politics of Washington D.C., enjoyed the environmental preservation efforts he was a part of and after graduating from George Washington University, signed up for AmeriCorps. He went back to Massachusetts and helped develop recycling programs in low-income communities. Mattson's experiences piqued his interest in environmental law and he applied to law school at the University of Oregon in 1997.

"I decided to become a rabble-rousing environmental attorney," Mattson said.

In Eugene, Mattson met a neuroscience graduate student named Cathleen, who he would later marry. After Mattson graduated in 2000, he and his wife moved to Portland, Ore., where she got a job and considered medical school, and he studied for the bar exam. Later that year, Mattson saw a job posting on The Seattle Times' Web site for someone to develop an environmental program for the Snoqualmie Tribe, which had just received an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grant to fund the position. He faxed a resume to the Tribe and got a call an hour later asking him to be in Fall City the next day for an interview. Mattson drove up to Fall City, where the Tribe had its office at the time, and met with tribal members.

"They just asked me to talk and I talked for 45 minutes and nobody said a word," Mattson said. "I really thought I had no shot."

Mattson was surprised to get a call the next day offering him the job as the Tribe's environmental program director.

"He wasn't arrogant," said Snoqualmie Tribal Chairman Joe Mullen, who was at the interview. "A lot of the people we talked to were older and the conversations were more argumentative. Matt wasn't like that."

Mattson was promoted to tribal administrator after one year and has overseen all of the Tribe's ambitious projects. One of the first projects he worked on was the process of getting a 54-acre parcel of land for a casino off North Bend Way approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The state has signed off on the project, but, as of now, the Tribe is still waiting on federal approval.

The Tribe is hoping it can provide gets more resources. Part of that outreach has been its clinics in North Bend and Carnation, both of which Mattson helped organize by negotiating contracts for health providers. The Tribe also talked with the county last year about taking over county parklands near Fall City and Carnation that are sacred places to the tribe, but still keeping them as public open space. Those talks, however, stalled due to the county deciding to hang on to the Carnation park and a disagreement over a historical hop shed at the Fall City park.

There are more lucrative professions for a young attorney, but Mattson said he has been intrigued by the diverse responsibilities of his job and the service role he plays.

"There is a social justice component to it," Mattson said. "For tribal members, there are a lot of problems and there are a lot of immediate needs, but there is also tremendous opportunity."

Mattson said he has been impressed by how the Tribe has taken him in as one of their own. Since members of the Tribe are always in a kind of social fishbowl, Mattson said they can be a little suspicious of outsiders, but he has felt like part of the Tribe. When Mattson's wife fell ill he was allowed to take time off to take care over her.

"They don't feel like I am this guy that is studying them," Mattson said.

There have been some cultural lessons learned. Mattson said he has discovered that silence from a tribal member means they are disagreeing with him and that a firm handshake can be threatening, but a mutual understanding has developed. Although he is far from his New England home, he said he feels as though he is working with kin.

"The Tribe has really embraced me as part of the family," Mattson said. "My youth has been an asset. I went from this green attorney to where I am now, and they went from a newly recognized tribe to where they are now. We are in this together and learning together."

Ben Cape can be reached at (425) 888-2311 or by e-mail at

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