Economics Special: Beleaguered tribe moves ahead

SANTEE, Neb. - Just a name change can have a psychological impact and with progressive and aggressive leadership dreams can seem closer than ever.

It may take the small Santee Sioux Tribe of Nebraska a few million dollars and many years to achieve financial independence, but it will happen if the current tribal leadership has a say.

When the tribal council changed the name of the Santee Sioux Tribe to the Isanti Nation, said Tribal Chairman Roger Trudell, it gave tribal members a new sense of pride, hope and determination.

The Isanti Nation is located in the northeastern portion of Nebraska along the Missouri River in farm country where the economy is down and the population isn't much better.

Seven years ago the tribe rallied around the leadership when the federal authorities threatened to file criminal charges against the tribal council for defying a court order to shut down the small Ohiya Casino that was operating Class III gaming machines without a state-approved gaming compact.

The U.S. District Court fined the tribe $3,000 per day, then upped it to $6,000 after a few months and the U.S. Attorney seized the tribe's bank accounts. It had to do business on the sly, hide any cash it took in from tribal businesses and it was all done in the name of self-determination and in an attempt to combat 80 percent unemployment.

The tiny Ohiya Casino employed a few more than 20 people, and according to those workers the tribal leadership had no choice but to stand strong against the threat of jail and bulldozers and keep the casino open.

Change is under way and forward progress is evident. With the help of neighboring tribes and tribes where relatives have made it big in gaming, the Santee or Isanti seem to be on an aggressive path to a self-sustaining economy.

Opening a new restaurant adjacent to their existing casino is one example of creative thinking and financing. The new restaurant opened and held an open house for a week ending on Labor Day.

"We looked at Bogner's burning down, and it left a void in dining between Gavins Point Dam and Fort Randall Dam," Trudell said. (Bogner's was a long-time favorite restaurant in the region located just a few miles east of the Santee Reservation.)

"We figured we could capitalize on that, create some jobs," he said.

Also employed for the first time on the reservation, are teenagers. The tribal leadership felt it was important to let the young people know that they are included in potential economic growth and they will learn the value of work and be given a sense of hope.

Although it may not sound like a lot, for a population of 1,000 employing 40 people that would not have an opportunity on the reservation, it is a good start.

"These aren't gigantic things, we are not creating 100 jobs at a time. If you look at the BIA economic policy that said there was a need to create 274 jobs on the reservation over a 10 year period - theirs' is only talk.

"We figure if we use that same policy, we could cut the time in half if we are aggressive enough and willing to take some risk," Trudell said.

With no money in the bank and only a small income from the various businesses, the tribe can't finance large operations all at once and there is still the fear that the federal authorities will seize the bank accounts to pay for the some $3 million in fines.

The fines have stopped accumulating since the tribe incorporated Class II gaming devices in the Ohiya Casino, which conform to federal Indian gaming regulations. The casino also moved to a location along a state highway on the edge of the reservation.

At that location they opened a motor fuel station with the help of the Winnebago Tribe's economic arm, Ho-Chunk Inc. and Ho-Chunk Distributing that supplies the fuel. Some 550 vehicles stop each day to purchase the fuel that carries a price tag some 10 to 11 cents cheaper than others in the area.

The tribe and the state have a compact agreement that allows the tribe to sell the fuel at a reduced rate and the state still is given a percentage of the taxes collected. But even with current fuel sales it is not enough to bring the tribe out of economic turmoil and help leverage other businesses.

"We need to establish a $2 million escrow account to take advantage of guaranteed loans and things like that to help start businesses," Trudell said. His idea is to create the escrow account, use the interest to create leverage for loans to establish businesses and for help with tribal members to open businesses. But it may take some time. Neither the casino, the restaurant orfuel station can create that much revenue.

"Tribes with the assets can create opportunity. In our case we have to build a resource pool. We hope to create enterprises off the reservation to bring the money home," he said.

This small risk-taking tribe is willing to forgo the thoughts of trust land and sovereignty and move off reservation, open a convenience store, or a liquor store or other businesses as any other business operation would do.

"All in all, the adversity the tribe faces has led to a more cohesive approach to economic development," said Warren Mackey, executive director of the housing authority.

The problem, however, is that the non-Indian business world looks at a tribe's attempt to purchase an existing business as a threat. If it's a convenience store, the criticism of putting the land in trust and discounting the fuel comes into question.

Members of the tribal council and some program directors told Indian Country Today that they intend to purchase a business for between $300,000 and $500,000 and want to operate it as any other business owner. They just want to have a business in a populated area and have it become successful enough to fill up their escrow pool and more.

"Let's see if we can compete off the reservation. We may not be as successful at Ho-Chunk Inc., but we have to think differently. We have to be aggressive in our Indian and non-Indian communities. It may not create a lot of jobs, but if we are successful we can create money and build the (escrow) pool," Trudell said.

He said they are looking at Yankton, S.D.; Sioux Falls, S.D.; Sioux City, Iowa; Omaha and Lincoln, Neb. as possible locations. All cities are higher in population base than the area just surrounding the reservation.

Aggressiveness has not been lacking with the Santee tribal leadership. They have acquired the help of their cousins, the Mdewakanton Dakota Shakopee Tribe of Minnesota. The Shakopee Tribe operate a multi-million dollar casino and help other tribes with grants and loans.

"I think they have helped us out with $3 million and have made a five-year commitment," Trudell said.

The future

Hunting, fishing and tourism along the Missouri River above Gavins Point Dam near Yankton is a major income producer for some of the cities and towns in the region. The potential for a hunting and fishing lodge, small businesses that provide guide service and possibly a motel to attract and keep people on the reservation is in the dream stage.

"In Indian country there are already success stories, like casinos, dining halls and quick shops. Things are cropping up all over and that's why we took on that area, Shakopee helped to start this," said Mike Crosley, tribal councilman. "We have made strategic plans, we want to see where we will be going in the next five or 10 years."

As businesses grow at Santee, the tribe will look at tax ordinances that will bring in extra revenue. Possibly an occupational tax of some sort may be implemented the tribal leaders said.

Also a dilapidated, closed gas station in the town of Santee can be refurbished and opened, a caf? in town, a girls and boys club, a new school, a change from BIA to tribal law enforcement and a new court system with new facilities are all on the table.

The tribe has just revamped its tribal court with new tribal Judge Rick Thomas. Thomas said the tribe could contract for law enforcement and build a public safety building that could employ up to five people. Thomas said the BIA put seed money in place to get the judicial element started.

"We see a tremendous amount of growth as far as people putting on their thinking caps. After our battle with the U.S. Attorney over gaming, we thought it would be a good to time for retro-cession. A good time to have our own law enforcement and court," Thomas said.

The Lewis and Clark bicentennial will pave the way for the Santee to capitalize on the influx of tourists from all over the world. David Henry, tribal treasurer said they plan to have a nature trail along the riverfront across the reservation, set up tipis, bring people to see the bison range, have horseback riding and other projects.

One of the newest businesses will be an RV campground next to the casino. The RV park will not only accommodate recreation visitors to the reservation, but will help those who want to visit the casino and restaurant to stay on the reservation.

Because of the low population, not just on the reservation, but in the region as well, businesses may face a long road to success if not on a major roadway, such as in Santee. The town is nine miles off the highway. However, if the community continues to grow as it has been, small business owners may be more encouraged and the larger community can support small businesses.

Social and cultural

What has been created out of necessity and adversity through up-hill battles, road blocks, internal problems, social ills and seemingly a hopeless future, comes a cooperative community energy that may have started when the federal government tried to close off any tribal chance at economic development.

"As we grow economically we have to pay more attention to the social structure. A growing economy will improve self-esteem and hope," Trudell said.

The future is not focused on how much money and how many businesses the tribe can attract. To be self-sustaining, future generations must get involved. The tribal leadership said that those who now hold the vision are anywhere from 40 to 60 years of age and young people will have to help carry the mantle of economic and social growth.

A new boys and girls club will help in that goal, Henry said. The young people need to know they are important, the leaders said in unison.

How much?

In order to create and realize the strategic plan including a hunting lodge, law enforcement and court facility, refurbished gas station, a larger fire station, a better health facility, RV park, hunting lodge and other businesses it will take more than 15 to 16 million dollars.

Right now there are 10 lots along the riverfront that have infrastructure in place on which new businesses could be located. There is no cost for development, but there is no leverage money at this time to help private entrepreneurs; thus the dilemma.

"That's why we need to take the game on the road. If it doesn't work out we can always sell the property," Trudell said.

The tribe doesn't want to continue its historical role of fighting for survival and trying to grow into the future while fighting the government. Tribal leadership wants to see a self-sustaining community at Santee.

For the Santee everything has been an uphill battle. There comes a time when the small community deserves an economic break. Tribal leadership said they hope it brings all of the surrounding communities success as well.

It's a tall order, there are a lot of changes that need to be made, a lot of attitudes that need to be changed, but if the tribal leadership has their way, it will happen sooner than later.