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Montana Reservation takes economy into its own hands

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LAME DEER, Mont. ? Tired of poverty and high unemployment, residents of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation are taking control of their economic future.

The reservation is working through Partnerships for Community Development Action, a grassroots umbrella group formed in late 1999 to spur sustainable economic growth in the area.

"I don't think people want to give up on the possibility that we can help ourselves," said Major Robinson, a key player in the group.

After years of watching development projects come and go, many without success, citizens on this 445,000-acre reservation decided to act on their own. The first step last year was to identify local needs through face-to-face surveys financed by First Interstate BancSystem Foundation and run through the tribal Dull Knife Memorial College. Now volunteers are preparing groundwork with the Billings-based bank and other private and public entities to meet those needs.

"We wanted [the PCDA] to be known as an organization that?s definitely community-based, not just [on] the tribe," said Robinson, a Northern Cheyenne

businessman who returned to the reservation about three years ago with hopes of building a broader economic base on his homeland. "We want to encourage the communities to be a little more self-reliant and not so dependent. We don?t want to be completely separate from tribal government, because we obviously want to work with them. But the connection is basically up to each community."

The needs-assessment survey consisted of interviews with nearly 100 residents each in Lame Deer, Busby, the outlying Muddy District, and the reservation border areas of Ashland and Birney. First Interstate paid more than ,000 to launch and complete the project. A total of 474 surveys ? just short of the goal of 500 ? were filled out, much to the delight of organizers.

One of the main questions was whether the reservation should form an economic development corporation, which would help to attract outside funding and projects.

The survey found that most respondents recognized the need for sustainable business development, but protecting the environment and cleaning up existing environmental problems also ranked high in their priorities. Expanding or creating new recreational outlets, making sure youths are better served, improving health care, day care, and police, fire and transportation services, encouraging recycling, and upgrading communication systems also scored high. Many respondents listed specific projects, such as getting grocery stores, gas stations and other retail outlets located closer to their homes.

Robinson says one clear trend developed from surveys collected from the reservation?s most rural areas: "They feel that they?ve been passed over so many times."

Joe Little Coyote, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe?s economic development planner, says some of the survey results have been incorporated into a new document that outlines overall goals for improving the reservation?s economy.

"Major (Robinson) is looking at micro types of projects," Little Coyote said. "I?m looking at the macro. We?re going through some major changes here in how we approach economic development. We?re taking a more comprehensive approach, rather than just a project-by-project approach. Instead of using soft money from grants, we?re trying to mobilize and utilize unrestricted capital."

Projects already coming online on the reservation include a new youth services center in Lame Deer that will include an alternative school, a group home and a detention facility. Fifty or more employees are expected to staff the center, which is scheduled to open next year. A new casino is also being built in Lame Deer, and a cultural resources center at the tribal college has just been completed. A new assisted living center is going up in Ashland.

Reconstruction is underway on the school in Busby, much of which was lost in a fire. Upgrades on several area highways are also creating dozens of new jobs.

"If it?s going to work, it?s going to be with self-reliance," Little Coyote said. "The answers can?t come from the outside. The answers have to come from within."