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Native Nations are finally developing some economic and political clout. Perhaps that’s why Barack Obama has been so keen to show his support for them. In May he became the first American presidential candidate to visit the Crow Nation’s reservation and is now one of their adopted members: he goes by the name of Barack Black Eagle. The White House has also announced that it will appoint a policy adviser dedicated to tribal issues in the coming weeks. But even without Mr Black Eagle’s help, the Native Nations are doing very nicely.

And this has all happened despite the fact that Indian nations represent only 1.6 per cent of the US population. In the US there are 561 federally recognised tribes representing five million American Indians and Alaskan natives. Canada has 615 Indian bands (the name given to tribes here) with about 700,00 people, or 2.2 per cent of the Canadian population.

The boom in the fortunes of the Native Nations can be traced back to 1979 when the Seminole Tribe in Florida opened a high-stakes bingo hall on their reservation. The state of Florida tried to close it but lost the case and now there are more than 200 reservations that use their sovereign status – allowing them to make and enforce their own laws on gambling and taxes – to run casinos.

This steady flow of cash means that tribes are not as reliant on annual budgets and grants given by the government. What will the next 10 years hold for Native Nations? Harvard JFK School Professor Joseph Kalt, who directs the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development says, “The recession will hit Indian country hard since Indian economies are not all well diversified yet. But it’s a fascinating movement going on. Tribes are sustaining their identity and are redefining what it means to be a modern Indian in North America.”

1. Tulalip Tribes —Washington

—Washington

The Tulalip Reservation sweeps away romantic visions of remote, pristine Indian country. In among the suburban sprawl about 50km north of Seattle, traffic-packed Interstate 5 leads to vast car parks and big-box stores. This is Tulalip country.

Like all Native American reservations in the US, the Tulalip lands are considered a sovereign nation-within-a-nation, with a high degree of political autonomy defined by an 1855 treaty between a union of local tribes and the federal government. But as you cruise past a caravan-sales lot with a giant inflatable gorilla outside, it looks like just another stretch of all-American suburbia. Indeed, the only sign that Indians run the show is the looming tribal-owned hotel and casino.

A 1988 federal law liberalised gambling on reservation lands, and tribes across the nation have heartily embraced this moneymaking opportunity. The Tulalips’ hotel opened last autumn, with giant in-room flatscreens and three-nozzle showers adding a touch of Vegas glitz. In the casino, glazed-eyed punters stare at slot machines – one model is named “Lucky Lemmings”. Is this what sovereignty looks like? Yes, actually. Although a deeper look at the Tulalips reveals a Native American success story.

For decades, the Tulalips’ 90 sq km domain languished as a rural backwater, with unemployment rates sometimes touching 70 per cent. Beginning with gambling in the late 1980s, the Tulalips began to leverage their metropolitan location to build a new economic and cultural future. With ambitions to move beyond the casino business, this fast-growing, predominantly youthful nation of about 4,000 is now one of the most innovative US tribes.

John McCoy, a tribal leader who also sits in Washington State’s legislative assembly, grew up on the reservation. He went away, first to work in the Air Force and then as a computer technician at the White House. In 1994, the tribal government lured him home to manage its fledgling economic-development zone. He found a sleepy casino and dilapidated infrastructure. The reservation’s antiquated communications appalled him.

“As a hi-tech guy, I couldn’t believe where we were,” he says. “I knew it held us back. Some scoff when they hear Obama talk about extending broadband access, but I’m right with him. Bring in technology, and development is hot on its heels.” He is particularly proud of the tribes’ broadband, launched with a start-up fund of just $300,000, which now ensures every Tulalip home has at least one computer and internet access.

Through the 1990s, the Tulalips expanded their casino and recruited retail tenants, including a Wal-Mart, which ranks among the busiest in the US. Investors were attracted in part by the tribes’ decision to set up a freestanding city government, with its own federally recognised charter, to control the economic development zone around the casino. Quil Ceda Village is the only such tribal city in the nation but its appeal lies in its familiarity. Native American tribes elect their own autonomous governments – often subject to rather quarrelsome internal politics – and run separate police forces and court systems. Outside businesses often find all this a bit unnerving. Quil Ceda, on the other hand, offers investors much the same legal framework as any US city.

“There can be barriers – or the perception of barriers – to investment,” McCoy says. “Quil Ceda smoothes those issues. Any business will have dealt with a city government. Beyond that, it takes a simple understanding of how tribes work – that, for example, we enforce contracts through our own tribal courts.” Quil Ceda’s location does the rest. Nestled in Seattle’s booming suburbs, it also draws on Vancouver which is 170km away.

In 2005, the tribe inaugurated a complex of shops including Calvin Klein, Burberry and Brooks Brothers. Taking the casino trade into account, the Tulalips attract about 10 million visitors a year.

Besides providing about 2,000 much-needed jobs – according to McCoy, “We sometimes have more jobs than we have Indians” – the developments pour millions of dollars into tribal coffers through profits, rents and tax. New roads and state-of-the-art waste water treatment and biogas power facilities have followed.

The tribal health service was moved from a large unventilated trailer to a gleaming new building on Tulalip Bay. “This is an example of what can happen when you have economic development,” says Alan Harney, the tribal clinic’s director. “The federal government only provides about 40 per cent of our funding needs, so every dollar from the tribe is crucial. As it is, we operate with half the money and one third the staff of some comparable facilities, but we can offer a full range of services. This doesn’t happen on most reservations.”

The Tulalips also use new-found wealth to assert themselves politically. Improvements in the courts allowed the tribes to reclaim jurisdiction over their lands from state authorities. A new government headquarters is in construction and the Tulalips play a key role in negotiations over environmental issues such as restoring damaged salmon populations.

The Tulalip Reservation, a wooded expanse of country roads and modest homes, offers a glimpse of both tradition and dynamism. At Tulalip Elementary School, a fourth-grade teacher is conducting a lesson in Lushootseed, the Tulalips’ native language. The kids are learning the alphabet, a thicket of diacritics and Roman characters printed upside down. This scene would have been unimaginable a few decades ago, when tribal children attended boarding schools where their language was suppressed. The current programme, funded by the tribal government, aims to revive Lushootseed as an everyday dialect.

Indeed, Tulalip culture seems poised for a modern renaissance. Near Quil Ceda, there’s a cavernous workshop for craftsmen employed by the tribes. Woodcarver James Madison, 35, who made totems and masks decorating the new hotel, says Tulalips’ recent fortunes have transformed the outlook for artists.

“I’ve been doing this since I was eight,” he says. “My dad and grandfather taught me, and we were used to working in our garages or living rooms. With this shop and the hotel as a venue, we’ve got tremendous support now. And the main thing is our culture is kept alive.”

Back at the hotel, David Fryberg, a retired Marine, was at a convention of tribal leaders from around the Pacific Northwest selling the Tulalip ceremonial headgear he weaves. These fetch between $150 and $300 a piece.

“I sold all seven hats,” he says. “I’m not out to get rich, but I have a real passion for travel and weaving supplements my budget. I’m dying to make it to Beijing,” he says. This entrepreneurial soul seems the embodiment of a forward-looking, business-savvy people.

Tulalip Tribes of Washington
Numbers: 4,000
Location: The 90 sq km Tulalip Indian Reservation, about 50km north of Seattle.
Businesses: The Quil Ceda Village business park, two casinos, a resort, leasing company with 474 lots, telephone, cable and internet provider, the Tulalip Liquor & Smoke Shop and a marina.

2. Osoyoos Indian Band

—British Columbia

“We don’t have what I call rocking-chair income,” says Chief Clarence Louie. “Everything we’ve done is from working the land with our own two hands.” The 460-member Osoyoos Indian Band in British Columbia, Canada, is renowned for having more band-owned businesses per capita than any of the first nations in Canada or the tribes in the US. Nine Osoyoos-owned businesses brought in $18m in revenue last year.

The Osoyoos live on one of seven reserves that the Canadian government created for the Okanagan First Nation people. Chief Louie has been in charge here for 22 years and has built his government on the belief that the only way back to tribal independence is through economic development. Tribes in the US have more jurisdiction within their reservations than bands in Canada but both are still under federal jurisdiction and both still fight the federal government for greater control of their lives as well as treaty and land rights.

“In a band,” says the 48-year-old chief, “the business role is the same as the government’s role. The government body sets the economy and has to develop the business climate.”

The Osoyoos are located on 32,000 acres of hills and mountains on the border of Washington State in what is called the Napa of the North. They own the largest privately held vineyard in Canada – Nk’Mip. It’s also the only native-owned winery. The vineyard employs Okanagan First Nation people as well as Natives from 13 other First Nations from all over western Canada.

Louie says, “We are not developing to be like corporate America. We’re in business to create jobs and make money for our people. We don’t want bigger cars and houses, but money to preserve our heritage and culture.”

Osoyoos Indian Band
Numbers: 460 members
Location: The Osoyoos Indian Reservation is about 400km from Vancouver.
Businesses: Golf course, construction company, a campground and RV park, a cultural centre, a pre-school and daycare centre, a winery, a concrete and aggregate supplier, the Mount Baldy ski area.

3. Winnebago Tribe

—Nebraska

The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska lives in one of the most economically depressed counties in the state but this 4,000-member tribe generated revenues of $155m in 2008 and expects this to rise to $160m in 2009. There was a 400 per cent rise in profits from 2007 to 2008. The secret of their success? In 1994, the tribe founded a holding company, Ho-Chunk Inc, which has grown into a conglomerate of businesses that includes government contracting, construction and an internet news organisation. The Winnebagos are the poster child for how a tribe can succeed by separating business from the politics of a tribal government.

Lance Morgan, Ho-Chunk’s CEO and also a Harvard-educated lawyer, says he uses the legal system to maximise the benefits of sovereign status. “The trick is to transition this to create a real economy,” says Morgan. “But I’m a bit of a lawyer and I’m not into being exploited anymore, neither is my tribe. I push and fight for tribal rights and it so happens that it also expands our opportunities.”

One of the many ways the Winnebago Tribe make their money is by ­distributing lower-priced tobacco and petrol. The tribe can set its own tax rates that are generally cheaper than the state’s, which attracts people to the reservation. Winnebago’s 15 businesses (sadly they don’t own the motor home firm) employ over 1,000 people – 250 locally where 80 per cent are Native Americans and the rest are non-Indian Ho-Chunk employees scattered from Mexico to Baghdad, working as economists for the Iraqi government or scientists at DNA testing labs in Mexico City. Ho-Chunk has taken the tribe from 70 per cent unemployment in 1994 to 10 per cent today.

“We live in an isolated rural community, a town of 1,500 people surrounded by cornfields,” says Morgan. “We are the last thing you’d expect: an Indian tribe running an international business on a reservation in Nebraska with a herd of buffalo outside our window.”

Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska
Numbers: 4,000
Location: The Winnebago Indian Reservation is about 140km north of Omaha, the largest city in Nebraska.
Businesses: A wholesale tobacco and petrol distribution company with over 25 tribes as customers, four hotels in Nebraska and Iowa, a tribal college, a nursing home, a hospital and a construction company and a general contracting business.

What’s in a name?

There we were thinking we were doing the right thing talking about Native Americans, but all the time the people being labelled so sensitively were having none of it, often preferring the term “Indian”. “The more frequently used term is ‘Indian’,” says Joseph Kalt of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. “‘Native American,’ can sound like non-Indians pandering.”

But, he says, you should “be sensitive to how tribes refer to themselves. For some, ‘nation’ is part of their official name – like the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. For others, ‘tribe’ is official. And when talking about all tribes as a group, you say ‘the Indian Nations’ or ‘the Native Nations’. For individuals, you say someone is Apache (or Winnebago or Citizen Potawatomi). You respect the tribal identity.”

Cementing tribal relations

Robin Flint Ballenger
The Flintco Companies

Before heading to university, Robin Flint Ballenger says she was a “little Indian from the reservation”. Today she runs The Flintco Companies, a privately owned billion-dollar business and the largest American Indian-owned construction company.

Flintco was founded by Ballenger’s grandfather who married a Cherokee. Its clients include over 63 tribes including the Cherokee, Choctaw, Navajo and Comanche Nations for whom Flintco builds housing, schools and medical centres. Ballenger, 63, a registered Cherokee who split her childhood between stomp dances with her grandmother and after-school visits to construction sites with her father, has spent a lifetime straddling two cultures.

“Three generations of Cherokee ownership means that we understand that when we build on native lands we are both guests and partners,” she says. For example, during construction on a school for the Lummi tribe in Washington, there were 12 days without construction to allow for funerals – a sacred gathering time for the Lummi. “No drilling, no nail guns, minimal heavy truck traffic,” she says.

Ballenger also seeks to hire American-Indian subcontractors as well as employees. “I strongly feel that it is our duty to pass on the chance that was given to my family by hiring and training Indians,” she says. The current economic growth on reservations has, she says, been astounding. “The Buy Indian movement has reached a tipping-point.” Flintco Founded in 1908 by C W Flint and headquartered in Tulsa, Oklahoma with an office in Oklahoma City and satellites in California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Tennessee, Missouri. Staff: 908 employees including 69 enrolled Native Americans. Clients: FedEx, Cancer Treatment Centers of America, National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.

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