Friends, politicians and business leaders are remembering former Cow Creek tribal Chairwoman Sue Shaffer, who died last week, as a driving force behind the tribe's rise to prominence in Southern Oregon
Dennis Whittlesey, a Washington, D.C., attorney who worked with Shaffer to get the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe of Indians federally recognized, called her "the best tribal chairman I ever saw."
Shaffer died in Roseburg on April 11 at the age of 94.
Shaffer led the effort to get Congress to formally recognize the Cow Creek band. She became the tribal chair, serving for 27 years (1983 to 2010) in that capacity.
She took the tribe to new heights, beginning with a small bingo parlor that gradually grew into a major casino and resort alongside Interstate 5 in Canyonville. She helped the tribe diversify into many other business ventures with revenue earned from the Seven Feathers Casino & Resort operation.
Whittlesey worked with Shaffer to get the first gaming compact in Oregon. They convinced then-Gov. Barbara Roberts to sign off on it, which allowed the tribe to expand its bingo operation to include gaming machines.
“She was really well known in Indian country and widely respected, and I know other tribes would come in to talk to the Cow Creek board to talk about getting into gaming or other things. I work with tribes all over the country and she was the best tribal chairman I ever saw,” said Whittlesey.
Stephen Dow Beckham, a professor of history at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, who taught courses on Native Americans, met Shaffer in 1978 and worked with her and the Cow Creek tribe for many years.
“She was a woman of immense determination, and had the ability to work with others to achieve goals,” said Beckham. “She was a woman with a lot of vision, she could imagine things that could happen and then set out to accomplish them.”
Beckham said many times Shaffer didn’t know how to get there herself, but drew on others to help her.
“She created a lot of work for me, in fact she moved my career in ways I never imagined,” he chuckled.
Beckham and his brother created the business plan for the Seven Feathers Casino in 1989 and he served on the board of the Umpqua Indian Development Corporation that included former county commissioner Bill Vian; Ron Doan, then with Pacific Power; and Terry Swaggerty, the director of the Umpqua Community College Small Business Development Center.
“It was our role to work with the tribal members to envision, and bring about the development of economic programs for the tribe. The result today is quite staggering, one of the largest employers in Douglas County with a diversity of investments,” said Beckham.
Shaffer was close to Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield, who was a Republican, and Fourth District Congressman Jim Weaver, a Democrat. Beckham said those friendships were vitally important at the time the tribe was seeking a jurisdictional act for the land claims case, and then creation of an investment fund.
The Cow Creeks received $1.2 million from the land claims case and they voted against a per-capita distribution of those monies to tribal members, instead deciding to keep the funds as a tribal asset and operate only off the interest.
“That was the kind of leadership that Sue brought to the enterprise,” said Beckham. "It was a wise decision to hang onto that asset. It gave the tribe a lot of leverage to have $1.2 million in the bank and only spending the interest off that."
Former Douglas County Commissioner Susan Morgan had many dealings with Shaffer over the years and was always impressed with her tenacity.
“She was unstoppable, she had boundless energy, but with a style and grace that you couldn’t help but appreciate. She’s going to be missed, and a hard act to follow,” Morgan said.
John McCafferty, the business operations officer for the tribe, first met Shaffer when he was with the Oregon State Police and was on the governor’s Compact Negotiation Team.
“Sue had vision, then she had focus, and then she had the determination to bring it to fruition,” said McCafferty. “There was a very deep, caring lady there. She was an advocate and leader in Douglas County and in national Indian country. She was recognized as a national leader.”
Shaffer became well known in Washington, D.C., and made friends with many of the congressmen and women and their staffs.
“She’d come to town and meet with the congressmen and senators and by then everybody knew Sue Shaffer and they would come into the office just to say hi to Sue,” Whittelesy said.
“She was an amazing lady, she’s going to be missed,” said McCafferty.