A phoenix rising from the ashes. Elk grazing in front of a mountain. Salmon next to a beaming sun. A canoe journey going up river.
If you’ve been to Muckleshoot Casino lately, you’ve probably noticed these images around the casino.
It wasn’t long ago that they didn’t exist. Prior to October 2016, you would have seen a vivid teal paint scheme instead of the red, white and black that currently adorns the outer walls. Even the carpet on the casino floor changed, a tropical vibe making way for the impression of sun-dappled water.
“While working with an architect from Thalden Boyd Emory, our first step was coming up with a new color palette,” says Muckleshoot Business Leader Tyrone Simmons, who facilitated the project. “When it came down to it at the end, black and red came through. Traditional Salish colors.”
White was also added to the color scheme to represent Mount Rainier, a symbol very close to the Muckleshoot Tribe. The interior colors also represent the mountain glaciers, as well.
The most distinct feature among these changes would not occur until late July 2017 when Salish and contemporary murals began appearing around the facility. The Salish art is easily distinguishable through its use of trigon, crescent and ovoid shapes.
“During that whole time [I was working at the casino], I felt like the one thing that was lacking was our ability to share the Tribe’s culture with our patrons and guests,” said Muckleshoot Tribal Council Member Donny Stevenson.
Stevenson began working at Muckleshoot Casino in 1996 on the first day the permanent building replaced the original tent structure. He has since moved on from the casino and was recently elected as a Muckleshoot Tribal Council Member.
He is also behind two of the pieces that can be found on the outer walls, currently: the phoenix outside of the Poker Room (seen below) and the artwork depicting a face and mountain to the right of the smoke-free entrance from the parking lot.
“I understand that during the 90s in tribal gaming, there wasn’t a huge movement in that direction,” Stevenson continues, “but there always was a twinge in the back of my mind that I thought our culture is as beautiful and had the ability to attract people just as much as anything else we could put together and market.”
Stevenson, and other Muckleshoot artists, were brought into the project by Muckleshoot Casino General Manager Conrad Granito and Tribal Council. The idea for the project was to portray the Muckleshoot experience, something Stevenson wanted to illustrate metaphorically and literally.
The Salish phoenix is a representation of what tribal gaming has meant not only for the Muckleshoot Tribe – who were once literally down to their final building, but now stand firm economically – but for any number of tribes across the nation who have benefitted from it.
“It was really kind of a rebirth,” says Stevenson. “For the first time since Western contact, gaming put us in a place where we were able to be economically self-sufficient. We were able to fund our own programs, we were able to run and operate those programs, and we weren’t reliant on external funding resources. That’s what the casino has represented for our people.”
The second piece (seen above) is a bit more straightforward in its meaning. Stevenson wanted to paint what the experience of being a Muckleshoot Tribal member was all about.
He decided to tie it to the land and the idea of home in this region.
“You see the mountain and you know you’re home,” Stevenson stated. “The casino’s logo includes Mount Rainier, Bingo’s logo includes Mount Rainier, the Tribe’s logo includes the mountain. That’s because of that literal tie to us, to our land, and how much we fought to retain the little land we have left.”
The salmon to the sides of the mountain have multiple meanings. They represent wealth and sustenance and are painted in the colors of the two most important rivers in the region – the Green and the White. They are reversed from their actual orientation to symbolize looking from the inside out.
In the middle, you’ll see a face that embodies the spirit of the people. It’s all contained inside of a hoop to represent equality and being infinite.
One of the subtler details of the painting is the elk head within the mountain, once again showing a tie to the region.
The artwork also exemplifies a sense of ownership and transition to Stevenson, personally.
“Professionally, I came up through the casino,” said Stevenson. “I’m of the generation that grew up before tribal gaming. There was always a sense of ownership because I came in the door day one and helped to build that facility into what it is today. I worked my way up from an entry-level position to an executive-level manager by the time I left.”
“I think beyond getting to know the business that we operate, the fact that guests get to have a sense of who we are as a people and why this particular business is important to our people. I think that that’s a really powerful and beautiful thing.”
Stevenson has been into art since he was a child. He never pursued it as a full-time career because he didn’t want to get burnt out, but he has done several commissioned works through the years.
He also uses it as a way to relax in his free time. One of the reasons he loves it is because it’s something you can never perfect. He always feels like he can learn something new and improve his work.
Besides art and his work on the council, Stevenson enjoys staying active. He played football growing up and has also trained in mixed martial arts.
“I think I actually attribute a lot of the success that I’ve had in my career to some of the values I learned working at our casino, frankly,” says Stevenson. “Even though I’ve transitioned from gaming and entertainment into tribal government, I’ve really always applied those guest-obsessed principles throughout my career.”
“I was born and raised on the reservation. Every opportunity I’ve had is an opportunity that’s available to every one of our people. It’s just about leveraging those opportunities and working hard towards whatever your end goal is.”
To be able to share the Muckleshoot culture was important to both Stevenson and Simmons. Stevenson noted that the tribes in the area would often share their cultures with one another in the past. In completing these murals at Muckleshoot Casino, he believes they have carried on that tradition for all to see.