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Panel: Time for intertribal alliances, economic diversification has come

MASHANTUCKET, Conn. - Four leaders of successful gaming tribes convened at a ''state of the nations'' panel at the Seventh Semiannual Native American Finance Conference at Mashantucket recently played variations on the same theme: The nations must plan now for a secure financial future for the next seven generations, using economic diversification and intertribal partnerships to create an irresistible strength-in-numbers impact.

Michael J. Thomas, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation; Ray Halbritter, Representative and CEO of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York; Maurice John Sr., president of the Seneca Nation; and Jamie Fullmer, chairman of the Yavapai-Apache Nation, comprised the panel at the conference, which took place at Grand Pequot Hotel at the Mashantucket Pequots' Foxwoods Resort & Casino.

(The OIN owns Four Directions Media, parent company of Indian Country Today.)

Paul Critchlow, counselor to the chairman and vice president of Merrill Lynch & Co.'s public markets division, introduced the panel, lauding the leaders and the nations' arrival in the financial world.

''Certainly, from a Wall Street perspective, but from any perspective, these leaders are in the vanguard of a momentous shift in the political and financial landscape,'' Critchlow said. ''They represent a historic inflection point in the growth of tribal financial and political influence, stewards of tribal sovereignty, catalysts of economic growth and captains of industry for the tremendous market power they wield - an estimated $95 billion in tribal assets in the U.S. and all with unlimited potential for growth.''

Indian casinos alone generated $25.7 billion in gross revenues last year, according to the National Indian Gaming Association. The bulk of the revenue went toward paying salaries, benefits and employment taxes for the 670,000-plus American jobs created by Indian gaming. The industry also provided the federal and state governments $11 billion in the form of employment, income, sales and excise taxes, and revenue sharing agreements, according to the NIGA report.

Changes in federal law and politics - ''many of which, as we know, are often contradictory and often discriminatory'' - have shifted the focus from enforced dependency to self-determination, which in turn had led to ''great credibility with the credit rating firms.''

''You've earned increasing recognition of your financial strength and earnings potential. You're increasingly viewed as good risks. You won respect for keeping your word and honoring your agreements,'' Critchlow said.

Thomas, who spoke first as host of the event, stressed the importance of nurturing and exercising tribal sovereignty.

The success of tribal economies has increased the acceptance of ''our governments as governments that have the stability, integrity and legal checks and balances, and certainly all of the capabilities of any state government - and to be accepted as such is much more difficult than to simply make a statement that you belong in those groups,'' he said, adding that the financial world needs reminding of the ''timelessness'' of tribal governments and that ''the strengths are not new strengths as much as they are newly noticed strengths.''

But tribes need to focus on accessing the economic toolbox available to other governments, which is critically needed for long-range planning, he said. At Mashantucket, for instance, the nation has created an endowment structure that will provide for sustainable government.

''Fifty years from now, my grandchildren will be able to depend upon this endowment for their government and no longer be dependent upon Uncle Sam or even the gaming industry,'' Thomas said.

Despite the current good fortune, he warned of challenges ahead.

''We all understand these things. When things work for Indian country, enemies coalesce, they align, and they come after the mechanisms that serve our tribal communities, some for business competition reasons, some for racism-based reasons. Those who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat it.''

His advice to Indian country was to ''prepare itself in terms of access to financial markets, in terms of the ability to attract and safeguard outside investment capital, and for the end of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.''

He urged the nations to work in unity.

''We don't work together as aggressively as we should or as often as we should. We tend to take tribal sovereignty in such an individual way that we don't build the kinds of special interest groups that attack us every single day so that we can defend ourselves properly and at some point in time, devote ourselves to collective action,'' Thomas said.

The road ahead is fraught with risk, Thomas said, but it also contains unprecedented opportunities for tribes ''to chase beautiful things together and even defend ourselves more effectively than we have in the past together.''

Halbritter and the other tribal leaders echoed and expanded on Thomas's remarks.

''We always have to remain vigilant about who we are and what we have. We're the only ones who can stand up for ourselves,'' Halbritter said.

But Indian country's newfound power ''can't just be a one-way street. We live in a country where politics is very important. We can organize the people who work for us. The vendors and finance companies and attorneys, they have lobbyists. They have relationships. We need to remind them we're the ones who are in business. They can write letters of support for our issues and go to meetings and do things on behalf of the issues that are important in Indian country,'' Halbritter said.

Halbritter suggested that the nations pool their purchasing power.

''Twenty-five billion dollars and more than that; if we pooled it into a nonprofit purchasing co-op and negotiated for better agreements for all of Indian country, look at the influence that would bring. That's the way this country works,'' Halbritter said.

The tribes need to help each other, John agreed.

''As we invest in our future, we're nothing if we can't help each other. We have no immunity. We're just another top 500 corporation and that's not our way,'' John said.

Tribes need to use their sovereignty ''as a tool for self-sufficiency and planning ''so we can exercise and utilize it together,'' Fullmer added.

''Define it in your community. What does sovereignty really mean amongst your leaders and your people? You need to know what it is to protect it,'' Fullmer said.