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Pine Ridge revival hinges on tribal council reform

PINE RIDGE, S. D. - The political excitement of the Oglala Sioux Tribe election is turning attention to a major condition for continuing the economic revival on the Pine Ridge reservation. In addition to economic factors like work-force training and access to financing, business leaders and lenders are looking for stability in tribal government.

At a meeting sponsored by Fannie Mae earlier this summer, stability in government was listed as one of the top priorities to attract investors looking for tax credits.

On Pine Ridge the government can change completely every two years. Often it does. Some of the councilmen have been on the council for years, but they still face reelection every two years.

There is a move afoot to change all of that. Constitutional changes are in the works that would set up four-year staggered terms for the council and a four-year term for the president.

Many would-be and present business owners support that change. The Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce supports the four-year terms. According to Mark St. Pierre, executive director for the Chamber.

Its members also advocate a business council separate from the tribal council that would oversee and facilitate economic and business development.

The Oglala Sioux Tribal community program directors have issued a 12-step program supported by the business community that summarizes development needs.

On the top of the list is the change to four-year staggered terms for elected officials. Adding the business council is a close second. Other elements include accountability of program directors, training of councilmen and employees through a new Human Resources Department, reorganizing tribal agencies into non-political departments, better accounting of tribal finances, admitting the failure of the temporary appointment practice and requiring program directors to make employee evaluations.

The program directors admit that these reforms would change the way the tribal government works and thinks, but they are doable and essential to moving the tribe forward in education, welfare and economic development. These conditions, "have not changed significantly in the last 30 years, and our children cannot survive with another three decades of business as usual," the report stated.

Business leaders also suggest putting more power in the hands of the local officials, those at the district level. There are nine districts on the Pine Ridge Reservation. An umbrella government at the tribal level would have to give local power to the districts. Each community has a unique quality on the reservation and it is that energy the business leaders want to capture.

Jesse Claussen, contractor and owner of a lumber yard and hardware facility in nearby Martin, S.D. said the tribal council is now starting to listen to the business people. "We are getting along with tribal government now."

Claussen employs up to 20 people at a time, people with families and they represent a large voting block, he said.

"The Tribal Council is trying to do something good and look positive about the reservation," he said.

Pine Ridge needs a bank

The Chamber of Commerce is also encouraging decision-makers to support a financial institution on the reservation. An Indian-owned bank would capture the flow of funds that now goes out of Indian country to near-by non-Indian banks, which in the past have faced barriers in lending to reservation applicants.

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The Oglala Lakota College and its branches on the reservation generate a substantial flow of cash. The tribal government is the largest employer on the reservation and filters millions of dollars a year through the hands of employees which now wind up in off-reservation businesses. Those two entities alone, chamber members assert, would be good enough to support a financial institution.

Other tribes have formed banks, and some have brought in branches of larger institutions. The Mile Lacs Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota bought banks that were on or near that reservation. The Blackfeet Nation in Montana started its own bank, which is now part of the Native American Bank NA. Casino dollars helped to finance some of the banking institutions, but Pine Ridge does not have that option. It owns a small casino that cannot generate the amount of money a bank would require.

St. Pierre said it would be more beneficial and easier to establish a credit union. He admitted, however, that attempts in the past have failed. Chartering a credit union requires 12 people at meetings to support the project, and in the past only four or five people have shown up. He said that 500 people had signed a petition that indicated they would support a credit union - but that was 20 years ago.

But with the active Chamber, Claussen said he thinks more people would get involved in the credit union project.

A financial institution would provide support to the many diversified businesses needed to create a self-sustaining economy.

In addition to Claussen's company, others on the reservation can provide plumbing, electrical, masonry and other construction needs. Together they can completely contract a project, strictly within the reservation. However, because of bonding issues they cannot bid for general contractor projects, which now come from off the reservation. With finance and government support and regulations, these projects could find a home on the reservation, prompting construction of buildings and homes.

But there is another barrier. Should the entire community of contractors acquire bonding to bid for major construction projects, all materials still have to be purchased off reservation.

"There is no Indian business to supply materials. Everything is imported and the general contractors are outside the area," Claussen said. "The contractors take 10 to 15 percent off the top for profit and take it off the reservation or out of state.

"They bring in their own crew and pay them $16 an hour, and hire our people at eight dollars an hour," he said.

And Chamber members agree that to upgrade the quality of life on Pine Ridge it will take more than minimum-wage jobs. It will also take training and education.

Small businesses can help create a work experience that wasn't present before. It's one job at a time, the entrepreneurs say.

"We are not recovering from a recession or depression or hurricane," St. Pierre said. "We have a cellophane ceiling, we hit the top and it stretches a little, but we are creating new ground everyday. If a factory came in looking for 300 workers it wouldn't happen. But we are growing one job at a time," he said.

Claussen said he moved back to the reservation after many years of experience in the construction business. He started small, with just a few employees and then moved up to larger projects that employ more people. Most of his employees have developed through training. He said he couldn't find 300 employees, but could find 25. He reiterated that things grow slowly and from within.

"American Indians on a national level don't receive a career job until the age of 40," St. Pierre said.

It's not that the reservation doesn't have talent; it does. St. Pierre said a person has to get into the non-traditional work force to find that talent.

"It's through the private sector that more jobs will be created. Projects that are well done produce more jobs. The government doesn't generate more jobs," St. Pierre said.