It was a bit ironic that the Hupa people, whose ancestral land in Northern
California was covered with tall timber, needed to trade with the
neighboring Yurok for the sturdy redwood dugout canoes necessary to travel
the Trinity River.
But such was the nature of the tribal economy before the arrival of
European settlers. Tribes often relied on trade and commerce with their
neighbors for food, supplies and other commodities.
Fast forward 200 years.
Four Fires LLC - a partnership of Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians and San
Manuel Band of Mission Indians of California and the Oneida and Forest
County Potawatomi tribes of Wisconsin - are preparing for the January
opening of a Residence Inn Marriott just off the Mall in Washington, D.C.
Three of the tribes - Viejas, San Manuel and Oneida - also plan to open a
Marriott in downtown Sacramento, Calif.
Economic development in Indian country is no longer just about the
ting-ting-ting of slot machines and the flick of a playing card across the
green felt of a blackjack table. Tribal governments flush with cash from
casinos are taking a page from non-Indian conglomerates and diversifying
their holdings, investing in a wide range of business ventures, from resort
hotels to bottling plants to office and industrial parks.
The Mashantucket Pequots of Connecticut, widely known for Foxwoods Casino -
a huge complex that generates more than $1 billion a year - have extended
its investment portfolio to include a shipyards and a pharmaceutical
Another gambling tribe, the Tule River Rancheria in Central California,
operate an aircraft remanufacturing plant. And further south near San
Diego, the Viejas Band have used revenues from its casino to buy a bank,
build an outlet shopping mall and launch an entertainment company in
partnership with House of Blues.
Observers of the $16.7 billion Indian casino industry believe it is only
natural Indian governments responsible for providing jobs and social
services for their tribal members are diversifying their holdings as
insurance against eventual saturation of the market for casino gambling.
"It will take success in more than one industry or business to ensure an
economic base for long term self-sufficiency and independence," Viejas
Chairman Anthony Pico said.
Along with generating self-sufficiency for individual tribal governments,
reservation businesses fueled by casino gambling are creating an emerging
tribal economy reminiscent of the centuries before European settlement of
what is now the United States. As the Hupa once traded with the neighboring
Yurok, modern tribes are increasingly seeking business alliances with their
fellow American Indians.
"Just as our ancestors traded Indian, modern Indians can produce products
or services needed by other tribal enterprises," Pico said. "We need to
begin keeping some of the wealth generated by our casinos currently going
to non-Indians within the Indian family. This is not a new concept, but one
very successfully practiced over thousands of years by our ancestors and
currently by other cultures and ethnic groups who have survived and
prospered economically in the midst of exile, foreign rule and immigration
to strange and foreign countries."
Viejas is a pioneer in the "buy Indian" concept. Viejas Entertainment was
formed this year to assist tribes who previously had been losing money
booking big-name performers. The partnership between Viejas and House of
Blues Concerts has six tribal clients.
"It was a perfect match," said Viejas CEO Frank Riolo. "They [House of
Blues] had the contacts in the entertainment industry and we had the
contacts in Indian country."
Elsewhere, the Mohegan Tribe, which owns the Mohegan Sun casino in
Uncasville, Conn., is investing millions with tribes developing casinos
near Chicago and in California and Washington state. And the Yavapai
Apaches, operators of the Cliff Castle Casino south of Flagstaff, Ariz.,
have financed tribal casinos in California and Oregon.
Statistics on the growth of tribally owned business are woefully lacking.
The Native American Business Alliance uses 1997 Census figures that show
197,000 American Indian businesses generating $34 billion a year in
revenues. That was long before the explosion in tribal government gambling
and its evolution from stand-alone casinos to resorts with hotels,
restaurants, retail shops and entertainment venues. The National Indian
Gaming Association, the tribal industry's Washington, D.C. lobby, estimates
that hotel, restaurant, entertainment and other non-casino enterprises
generated $1.8 billion in 2003 alone.
Tribal casino resort businesses have spawned a cottage industry of Native
American vendors. NIGA has established the American Indian Business
Network, an association of tribal businesses providing everything from
toilet paper to payroll services. Robert E. Mele, an official with the
Native Coffee Project, an association of Meso-American Indian farmers, is
part of the network.
"This is a revival of something that existed for hundreds, thousands of
years before the Europeans came," Mele told Indian Country Today. Trade
between Indians extended from what is now Canada to Mexico and beyond, he
said. As part of the 21st century Native trade, his group offers tribal
hotels coffee packets for in-room coffee makers.
"Although many tribes have been able to benefit from gaming, there are
still many who have not been included in this success," NIGA Chairman Ernie
Stevens Jr. told the newspaper. "NIGA and the American Indian Business
Network understand this and are trying to include more tribal businesses
and Indian-owned business in this success.
"We have all worked very hard to get where we are today and we must
continue to work together to bring prosperity to all of Indian country,"
Stevens said. "Now, it is time to come together and provide a helping hand
to the smaller businesses, not only to include them into the success but
also to truly create a national tribal economy."
The growing tribal economy will create an increasing demand for American
Indian professionals: tribal educators, attorneys, architects and marketing
and management executives.
Providing these professionals will be the responsibility of tribal
As the late President John F. Kennedy said, "There is no greater return to
an economy or a society than an education system second to none."
Dave Palermo is special assistant to the Hopi Tribe of Arizona and a
freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.