Economics Special: Tribal joint venture empowers rural communities in Wisconsin

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LAC DU FLAMBEAU, Wis. - The Northwoods NiiJii Enterprise Community, Inc. (NNEC, Inc.) is a unique joint venture among three tribes in northern Wisconsin and eight nearby municipalities, a partnership that is attempting to improve the quality of life in all of the participating communities by combating poverty.

Established in 1993, NNEC consists of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, with the surrounding non-Native communities of Arbor Vitae, Boulder Junction, Manitowish Waters, Minocqua, and Woodruff; the Menominee Nation and the town of Shawano; and the Sokaogan Mole Lake Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and the town of Nashville. All of the communities encompass an area of 335,000 square acres, and sustain a population of 6,320. The combined income level of the communities is among the lowest in the nation.

NNEC employs a strategic plan for economic development in these rural areas. The goals are: business development, improving the infrastructure and social development, improving education and technology, and protecting the environment and pristine ecosystem of the Northwoods.

The Executive Director of NNEC is Patricia Stanton. "Many exciting projects are just beginning to launch," Stanton said. "We hope to fulfill the vision of these communities involved which is the alleviation of poverty for future generations. Right now there are a total of 70 projects being undertaken by the NNEC partners."

Through their cooperative efforts the NNEC partners applied to, and received a substantial USDA grant. The funds were applied to strengthen business development, housing, education, road improvement, and employment in their communities. Various community members who analyzed the economic needs of their townships carried out planning and strategic development. Seed funds were made available for various improvement projects.

To date, NNEC has had many successful projects, including:

*Granting 130 micro-loans and loan guarantees totaling $490,000 to individuals for business start-ups or expansions

*Replacing water and sewer systems along Highway 47, for a total of 3.5 miles

*The construction of a 10-unit elder housing complex in Manitowish Waters

*Upgrade of 10 miles of tribal road in Lac du Flambeau

*Development of a reservation Resource Service Center in Lac du Flambeau

*Expansion of the facilities of the College of the Menominee Nation

Some of the projects slated for the near future are:

*The design and construction of retail space in downtown Lac du Flambeau

*Construction of a multi-purpose recreation trail system

*Continuation of a sustainable 10-acre strawberry farm in Lac du Flambeau

It is not by chance that poverty and race are related on reservations and in rural areas in the United States.

Traditional rural development policies do not address the attitude that has been handed down from one generation to the next; that rural communities are incapable of prosperity. The policies also do not concentrate on root causes which make poverty exist in the first place; factors that are deeply rooted in the racial separation within these high poverty areas, and the consequences of past traumas and lack of opportunity.

In this case, the treaty rights issue of the late 1980s has been a catalyst for tensions between the Indian and non-Indian townships within the NNEC. Relations between these communities have been improving over the years, perhaps as a direct result of the collaboration of the NNEC partners.

NiiJii means 'friend' in Ojibwa, and is the fundamental nature of combating poverty through collaboration.