FORT YATES, N.D. - Economic development can mean jobs, money or both, but
tribes were told they need to decide which they will seek as they strive
for economic independence.
More than 300 participants, the most ever, attended the sixth annual Great
Plains Regional/Tribal Economic Development Summit. The goal of the summit
is to create a network for tribes, businesses and organizations to partner
in efforts that will create growth of entrepreneurial and tribally-owned
The industrial revolution passed the American Indian nations by, and now
the tribes have no intention of letting the in-progress information
technology revolution get out of their grasp. The summit is one of many
gatherings that bring people together to regain momentum to create jobs or
The host tribe, Standing Rock Sioux, was the first to sign a gaming compact
with the state of North Dakota. Standing Rock is positioned in North and
"Our economic base is agriculture and secondary is our casino, I hope we
can get ideas to make the reservations better places to work. We need to
talk about how to get more jobs," said Charles Murphy, chairman of the
Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
To sustain economic development a stable government must be in place.
Speaker after speaker reiterated that message, which is well known in
Indian country. Also on an equal footing with that requirement, to some, is
a complete separation of government and business; that tribes should not
own or manage businesses and expect to be successful.
When tribes play musical chairs with councils and presidents or chairmen
every two years, ideas change, proposals are altered or discarded and
confusion reigns. Outside investors shy away. When tribal councils manage
businesses, practice nepotism and have control over business decisions,
success is not likely, summit speakers asserted.
"Personal disputes, relatives of council members are either fired or hired.
You have to ask, am I a legislator or a corporate member. More and more
countries are dropping business, but Indian country is going the other
way," said Robert Olson, Denver Regional Director, Economic Development
He used Ho-Chunk Inc. the business arm of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska
as an example of how the separation of powers can work for the tribe in
general. What makes Ho-Chunk Inc. successful is the fact that it can make
mistakes, regroup and reorganize to save a plan or project without
interference from government.
"What is it you are trying to accomplish? Without a plan you won't know
what you need," said Fletcher Brown, vice president of Telecommunications
at Technical and Management Services Corporation.
Economic sustainability is the focus of many summits and gatherings with
multiple ideas floated as possible anchors for tribes to develop on the way
toward self-sufficiency. A prominent theme at this summit was information
technology. To some remote reservations it is not only a dream, but a
Partnerships with government and private corporations create an atmosphere
for development. Tribes that can access government contracts or access the
sole source government contracts can establish an economically-viable
community that offers jobs and money, summit panelists and presenters
"Our ancestors understood they needed to help one another. It's a
multiplier effect - one buys from another on the reservations," said Ken
Robbins, president and CEO, National Center for American Indian Enterprise
What may become one of the saving enterprises for the reservations has been
in their back yards, so to speak, for decades - agriculture. The Great
Plains tribes hold large acreages of land, most of it tillable or grassland
for livestock. Yet, only a few ranchers continue to work in agriculture
with varying degrees of success, and the tribes, until now, have not been
involved in value added agribusiness.
In South and North Dakota, drought the past few years has taken its toll on
the cattle and crop industries. Many ranchers have liquidated their herds
and this year are taking large numbers of cow and calf pairs to market
Yet, the Lower Brule Sioux tribe and the Oglala Sioux tribe are planning to
move into the cattle business more aggressively. Lower Brule plans to
operate a processing plant and the Oglala Sioux tribe has entered into an
agreement with a packing plant in nearby Gordon, Neb. It will take a lot of
cattle for both operations.
In the meantime, an organization that produces natural beef wants tribes to
enter into agreements to provide cattle, sheep and other livestock to
assist the American Indian rancher.
The second-largest industry in North and South Dakota is tourism.
North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven said that when he interacts with people on
the Standing Rock Reservation he is met with hospitality. "It needs to be
emulated throughout the world. We are partnering with Standing Rock and the
Three Affiliated Tribes to develop the Lewis and Clark bicentennial
"You have a phenomenal story to tell and North Dakota wants to partner with
you to tell that story," Hoeven said.
Hoeven emphasized that he is a believer in partnerships, especially when
state agencies and the tribes can work together. He cited progress in
Indian country with the mention of a new bridge in New Town on the Fort
Berthold Reservation and school programs that keep children in school.
"New partnerships have been created, Indian and non-Indian need to share in
the prosperity and create new entrepreneurial endeavors," Hoeven said.
He spoke of a new university center at United Tribes Technical College that
will prepare entrepreneurs and a work force for on and off reservations.
"This will bring the business back to North Dakota and to the
The Great Plains region is home to two of the poorest counties in the
nation, both on reservations. To bring economic strength to those
reservations will be difficult as the past has seen, but a new project, the
Central North American Trade Corridor may make it possible. The corridor
will travel along U.S. Highway 83 from Canada to Mexico, right through
Additional travel will come from Alaska by rail, to the uppermost part of
the corridor and then along the highway to Mexico. The route will promote
trade and tourism, attract technologies, support energy development and
help in the reversal of out-migration.
North and South Dakota have lost population in the non-Indian communities,
but the reservations are growing as people return home and young people
remain to take advantage of expanding opportunities. The average age on the
reservations hovers around 21 years.
Participants in the summit agreed that the reservations could be the very
catalyst for attracting funding, business, energy development and
partnerships that promote economic development and could save the rural
areas of the Great Plains states.