I'm sitting on my couch, smoking a joint, listening to Willie Nelson—Red Headed Stranger, to be exact—and thinking that the man needs a better publicist. I called her earlier with some simple questions: about his upcoming gig at the Snoqualmie Casino, about his marijuana activism, and about an intratribal controversy that erupted earlier this month when the Snoqualmie Tribal Council passed a resolution legalizing marijuana for the day of Willie's upcoming concert. Relatively innocuous, right? Willie had even gone on Larry King just last year to talk about his support for legalization and how he'd smoked some pot before coming on the show. No big deal.
But when I told her what I wanted to talk about, publicist Elaine Schock gave me the deep freeze:
"Uh, I'm unfortunately not able to schedule any interviews with Mr. Nelson because he's on vacation and I like to respect that time." I asked: When does he get back from vacation? "He'll be on vacation until he arrives at the casino." He's on vacation until the moment he reaches the casino? "Yes." How long have you been working with Mr. Nelson? "I've been working with Mr. Nelson since 2003." So has this kind of tribal resolution to legalize marijuana happened before? "I have no comment." Why not? "I can't discuss it." Why not? "I have no comment." But why not? "I don't know what else to tell you." But Mr. Nelson has been a longtime supporter of marijuana legalization and you've been working with him for so long—I don't understand why you're so gun-shy about this. "I'm going to have to go. I'm not going to answer any of your questions." But this kind of tribal resolution has happened before, right? "I have no idea." You have no idea? "I have no idea."
This continues until she eventually hangs up on me. The reaction within the Snoqualmie Tribe was as polarized as the publicist's. After news of the resolution leaked, the tribal council told newspapers that it was just a lighthearted "joke" in honor of Willie—but Hereditary Chief Jerry Enick was furious. He issued a statement condemning the council for the resolution: "This goes against all Native values and morals and has brought great shame and embarrassment upon our people, our leadership, and our great nation."
Some, like Seattle attorney Gabriel Galanda—an enrolled member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes in Mendocino County, California—have come out swinging for cultivating marijuana on tribal lands as another revenue source alongside fireworks, tobacco, and gambling. In an online article earlier this year, Galanda wrote: "Indian Country has the sovereignty, land base, agricultural savvy, and business intangibles to really make legalized marijuana happen. For some rural tribes, those attributes are all they have to leverage economically."
Washington tribes have independence from state law that might allow their members to cultivate marijuana. (It's complicated, but as Galanda explains it: Generally, state law has little or no force in Indian Country, but things get messy from state to state and from tribe to tribe. In Washington, the state has limited criminal and civil jurisdiction. Galanda argues that the state has no civil regulatory jurisdiction—the key to cultivating and regulating marijuana—on tribal land.) But despite state law, there are still the Feds to worry about—"the likelihood that the US would invoke its federal trust responsibility in this regard (after centuries of conveniently ignoring that duty)," Galanda writes.
But, Galanda said in an interview, his position is not common. Tribes in California and Montana have had serious debates about legalization, but the topic is still taboo for many: "Some tribes take a hard line and say, 'No, we don't want it on our lands, drugs on our lands are a big enough problem, it's just killing our people.'"
I wonder whether these complications were why Willie's publicist didn't want to talk to me. Or whether it's due to Willie's marijuana arrests in the past year and the West Texas judge who, earlier this month, ruled that he could spend a year in jail for a misdemeanor possession charge.
Either way, Willie Nelson is coming to the Snoqualmie Casino, where he will play some songs. More importantly, his arrival has inadvertently heated up a simmering debate: whether tribes can or should try marijuana cultivation as a source of revenue and another blow for tribal sovereignty.