Leading an evolution
The sharp pencil and sharper eye of Cow Creek chairman Sue Shaffer is transforming her tribe.
By Robin Doussard
She strides ahead of you at full steam as she whisks through the Cow Creek tribe’s Roseburg headquarters. You try to be polite and rush to open the next door. After all, she is a tribal leader and approaching 85. Forget it. She reaches the door first, swings it open and you follow at a fast clip, learning quickly, like everyone around her, to swim fast or get to shore.
To meet Sue Shaffer, a quiet, dignified woman made just a little taller than her five feet by the trademark steel gray hair bundled atop her head, is to also know this: She might be small, she might be a grandmother, and she might indeed be “the old girl” she calls herself, but she is all business. Shaffer calls herself a tight-fisted child of the Great Depression and it was that fist that famously set the tribe on its path to becoming the powerful economic engine that it is today: Douglas County’s third-largest employer with 1,600 jobs and a payroll of about $40 million.
It’s a bootstrap story suitable for framing. For most of the past 30 years, “the only thing this tribe had was my husband’s pocketbook and my determination,” Shaffer says, describing how little the Cow Creeks had when they began their journey in 1954 to win back status as a federally recognized tribe.
“This tribe for 125 years received nothing,” she says. “We had to sink or swim on our own. But it made us stronger.”
With Shaffer’s determined leadership, the tribe received federal recognition in 1982, then sought compensation for the lands it held under its 1853 treaty. In 1988, the federal government paid the tribe $1.5 million. As chairman, Shaffer rejected doling out money to individual tribal members — Indian welfare to her — and instead took the money and, in Depression-era terms, put it in a coffee can. The interest off that principal was used to seed the tribe’s economic future.
“Everyone wondered if the tribe could really do it. Well, they are really doing it,” says Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat who has known Shaffer for 20 years. “She’s brought a sharp pencil to how the tribe does its business. The economic importance of the tribe is huge, with a capital H.”
The tribe provides health services, education programs and childcare to its 1,400 tribal members, and donates about $1 million per year through its casino-funded Cow Creek Foundation to local organizations and nonprofits. Its business ventures include the Seven Feathers Hotel & Casino (the state’s first bingo hall, opened in 1992), Umpqua Indian Foods, Seven Feathers Truck & Travel Center, Rio Communications, a ranch, a media group and the newly opened Seven Feathers RV Resort.
“The new RV park is a little slice of heaven,” says Norm Gershon, president of Umpqua Training and Employment in Roseburg. “They could have slapped down a good looking RV park and made a few bucks. But they built a resort and facility that will be to RV’ers what Bandon Dunes is to golfers.”
The business strategy is simple. “They don’t do anything half-assed. When they do something, they put all their vision behind it and they build it forever,” says Gershon, who has known Shaffer for two decades. “Sue provides that vision and energy. She is tireless. Her vision is the tribe will last forever, and its people will be secure.”
A descendant of the Thomason branch of the tribe, Shaffer has been prominent in national Indian affairs, sat on the board of Umpqua Community College for 17 years, received the Eleanor Roosevelt Award from the Democratic Party, and has been honored by the Oregon Commission for Women for her advocacy of women and racial equality. To her, though, her life achievement has been “raising two good citizens.”
“It was so important that we weren’t stupid kids,” says Shaffer’s daughter, Sherri, who has been CEO of the tribe for 20 years.
“I’ve never seen another Sue Shaffer in my life,” says Gloria McGinnis. “She’s always one step ahead of everyone around her.” McGinnis has had a bird’s eye view of the tribe for decades as the former mayor of Canyonville and in her current seat on the foundation. “She’ll out-work you and she’ll out-walk you. She doesn’t believe in welfare and gives scholarships to every high school in Douglas County. She keeps this county moving.”
Which is why, McGinnis says, “The Kittelman thing particularly stung Sue.”
Douglas County Commissioner Marilyn Kittelman’s opposition to tax-exempt status for tribal lands has created quite a squall in the community. The first-term commissioner opposed the tribe’s plans to build a downtown Roseburg convention center, which would have removed that land from the tax rolls. Kittelman also aligned herself with One Nation United, a group that is opposed to tribal tax exemption and one that Shaffer calls a “national Indian hate group.” It earned Kittelman little affection among the tribe and its supporters and helped spark a recall election in September that she survived by 127 votes.
Even though it has stalled the convention center plans, The Kittelman Thing is a popsicle in the path of the iceberg cutter that is the SS Shaffer. “The tribe is going to do what the tribe is going to do,” Shaffer says calmly, and dismissively, adding that she will continue to focus on children’s welfare — all children, not just the tribe’s — and keep working to solve hunger, improve education with scholarships and provide jobs.
As the Cow Creeks look forward to the 25th anniversary of their federal recognition next year, Shaffer also is looking ahead. Her plans include creating more businesses, expanding Umpqua Indian Foods and upgrading the casino. Both she and her CEO point-blank refuse to be specific because, frankly, they just don’t want anyone to know. Her plans do not include retirement. “I can’t think of anything more boring,” says the grandmother of two who still works seven days a week.
Shaffer never learned to drive and depends on husband George, who is 92, to take the wheel. So if you happen to see the old girl and her old man out and about, perhaps heading to their Sunday bingo game, take a good, long look. It’s the only time you are likely to see the leader of the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians taking the passenger seat.
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