Washington State Senate Democrats
State Senator John McCoy

Creator of First Federally Recognized City in Indian Country Named to State’s Most Influential List

Lynn Armitage

The Puget Sound Business Journal has recognized John McCoy, a Native of the Tulalip Tribes of Washington, and current state senator, as one of the top 35 most influential business leaders of the last 35 years. Standout accomplishments include his pioneering efforts to deploy technology on the reservation, and the creation of Quil Ceda Village, the first and only federally recognized city in Indian country, for which he served as general manager for a decade.

“I’m not surprised to hear that John is being recognized as an influential business leader. He has always worked to be on the cutting edge of technology,” the tribe’s newly re-elected Chairman Mel Sheldon told ICTMN. “It was his vision behind Tulalip’s Technology Leap, a program that put a computer into every tribal home, and helped launch our community into the digital age.”

McCoy’s journey to success began in the Air Force, where he just happened to fall into computer programming. Little did McCoy know then that this random assignment would help chart the course of his life.

After 20 years in the Air Force, and several more years with Sperry Univac automating the White House during the Reagan era, the Tulalip Native was called home by his tribe to shape up its economic development. The first order of business was to improve communications.

“We had a very antiquated phone system on the reservation. It was one step above a smoke signal,” McCoy told ICTMN. He knew exactly how to bring an updated communications system and state-of-the-art technology to the tribe and deploy it. He just needed help with the setup. To minimize this cost, McCoy created an internship program for local college students in Snohomish County. “The state laws wouldn’t allow us to pay the students a salary, so all we had to do was buy them cookies and cokes.” But the students got much more than a sugar rush. According to McCoy, every student who participated in the Tulalip Project — about 1,300 — got a job within the technology field by graduation day.

During this time, McCoy and his team also gave rise to Quil Ceda Village, a 2,000-acre consolidated borough on the Tulalip Indian Reservation in Marysville, Washington. Quil Ceda, which means “slow running water,” was incorporated as a federal city in 2001. Certainly, economic development was a primary motivator for creating Quil Ceda Village. But McCoy said, “Another reason we created our own city was to stop jurisdictions from annexing us for taxation reasons and if there was an opportunity for Tulalip to tax.”

Quil Ceda Village is now a busy retail and commercial municipality, a popular stopover between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia. The village includes shopping venues, such as Walmart, Seattle Premium Outlets and Home Depot, as well as the Tulalip Resort Casino, an Amphitheatre, golf course and restaurants, to name a few highlights.

The village employs close to 5,000 people, including nearly 2,500 casino employees, and has become a paragon for economic development throughout Indian country. “Other tribes have seen what we have done and think, ‘Oh, we can do that, too’,” said McCoy. “So they’re catching up, and I am proud of them.”

In 2002, McCoy was elected to the state legislature. He served 11 years in the House and is now in his second year in the Senate. Due to the demands of his political career, McCoy resigned his post as general manager of Quil Ceda Village in 2010. “The tribe knew where it was going and didn’t need me to move that along.”

McCoy said he has had many career highlights. “Creating the latest technology on the reservation and Quil Ceda are two of them. Then I have a legislative life and there are a number of bills that I am extremely proud of,” said the 71-year-old state senator. Most recently, McCoy authored a bill that makes the teaching of tribal culture and history mandatory in Washington state schools. It was signed into law May 8 by Gov. Jay Inslee.

RELATED: From ‘Encouraged’ to ‘Mandatory’: Schools Must Teach Native History in Washington

“I’ve had many highs in my career. I feel if I died tomorrow, I will go out saying that I have made my mark,” said McCoy.

Lynn Armitage is a contributing business writer and an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.

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