UNCASVILLE, Conn. - While political planning went on behind closed doors,
the National Indian Gaming Association laid out in plain view its wish for
a future casino economy, supporting a network of diversified Native
The NIGA Mid-Year meeting, held Aug. 16 - 17 at the Mohegan Sun Convention
Center, featured a "mini-expo" of the American Indian Business Network, in
effect giving an outline of the infrastructure it hopes will grow around
the steadily increasing tribal gaming industry. Native-owned enterprises on
display were poised to offer everything from payroll services to toilet
Some of the companies had only recently come under Indian ownership, as
tribes or entrepreneurs used casino-generated capital to take over services
previously provided by non-Indians. CORT Directions, a provider of payroll
and human resources services for a range of presugious clients, is now an
enterprise of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Ore. The previous
owner was consolidating operations and spun off the subsidiary to the
Confederated Tribes, which had been using its services.
"We were a client," said CORT representative Aurolyn Stwyer-Matlamet, a
tribal member. "Now we're the owner."
The networking cut across national boundaries. Robert E. Mele, Seneca, was
representing the indigenous farmers of Oaxaca, Mexico in the Native Coffee
Project, the latest in a series of attempts to market the produce of
Meso-American Indian farmers directly in the U.S.
"This is a revival of something that existed for hundreds, thousands of
years before the Europeans came," Mele said. Trade between Indians extended
from what is now Canada to Mexico, and beyond, he said. In a new version,
he offered coffee packets suitable for the in-room coffee makers found in
The Nature's Way Tissue Corp. could claim to be one of the most
trailblazing new ventures at the meeting. Its chairman, Artley Skenandore,
is a private entrepreneur who pulled together a consortium of tribes to
take over a manufacturing business that provides an essential product for
Seated behind a stack of tissue paper boxes and toilet paper rolls,
Skenandore said the unique nature of the company was evident at a summit of
minority-owned companies earlier this year. "There were a thousand
businesses there," he said, "and we were the only manufacturer."
Skenandore, the former president of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, joined
with two tribes in January in the Swakweko LLC partnership to buy a
majority interest in the tissue converting manufacturer. The principals of
Custom Papers Products, Inc. retain a 49 percent share. Since taking it
over and certifying it as a Minority Business Enterprise, the partnership
has nearly tripled employment, from 31 to 91, and steadily expanded
production. It now ships 170,000 cases of packaged tissues, which its
factory cuts from two-ton "parent rolls" of recycled paper, and by the end
of the fourth quarter plans to hit 250,000 cases a month.
The company is making a classic business school example of a
"recession-proof" product, said Skenandore. Demand would grow steadily with
the population, he said. It already has a diversified market, supplying its
minority partner and developing a niche in the organic and recycled goods
that appeal to the environmentally conscious retail trade. It is also
developing its own brand of Native paper towels, to be marketed under the
trade-mark "Kola," the Sioux word for "friend." But it is just beginning to
tap the potential of the tribal casino market.
Skenandore said first call on its goods went to the tribal owners, the
Spirit Lake Tribe of North Dakota and the Seven Generations Corp. of the
Wisconsin Oneidas. Each tribe owns 10 percent. Skenandore said talks were
under way with two more potential tribal owners. He said he hoped to sell
each another 10 percent of the shares, out of the 31 percent he currently
If the company could tap into the nationwide tribal casino market, its
prospects would grow enormously. But first, acknowledged Skenandore, came
the challenge of changing the habits of casino purchasing agents, who tend
to stick with the bulk suppliers they dealt with in the non-Indian side of
It's this sort of transformation that NIGA is trying to bring about through
its business networking. The meeting circulated a policy statement and
draft tribal ordinance recently adopted by the NIGA executive committee to
encourage Indian business preference.
"Tribal government gaming has grown to a $16.7 billion industry with
enormous growth potential and although many tribes have been able to
benefit from gaming, there are still many who have not been included in
this success," said NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens, Jr. "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,"
said Stevens. "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 bulk of the NIGA meeting consisted of closed-door strategy sessions on
major issues with the federal government, such as the new National Labor
Relations Board claim of jurisdiction over reservations. A series of
speakers also briefed NIGA delegates on the growth of Class II gaming,
intensely interesting because of the greater tribal control, the ongoing
struggle over the jurisdiction of the National Indian Gaming Commission,
the federal regulator, and tribal access to the tax-free bond market. Two
representatives from the presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. John Kerry also
waited to make a pitch, and the delegates received invitations to
Washington, D.C. fundraisers.
But the meeting also had a social side, as a banquet and reception honored
several leading figures in Indian country. One of the group's highest
honors, the John Kieffer Award, went to Thelma Thomas of the Santee Sioux
Tribe of Nebraska. Thomas, the manager and Tribal Gaming Legislative
Assistant for the Ohiya Casino, was at the forefront of the tribe's
struggle with the Justice Department to develop gaming as a means to escape
The Chairman's Leadership Awards went to Andy Ebona, NIGA's Alaska
delegate, who was introduced by Stevens as one of the three Indians,
including himself and NCAI President Tex Hall, who spent the most time on
airplanes; U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chairman of the House
Resources Committee; Gov. Stuwart Paisano of the Sandia Pueblo and Chief
Ralph Sturges of the Mohegan Indian Tribe.