He started his working life on a ranch and on the back of a rodeo horse
that tried to throw him to the ground. If he stayed on for eight seconds he
Charles Colombe rode bucking broncos and bulls for a living in his youth.
He made a living at something many people aren't able to. He now heads the
Rosebud Sioux Tribe as president, not a far stretch from the rodeo arena.
The bucks and spins of a bucking horse or bull are much the same as life as
a tribal president. The difference: Colombe has to hang on for two years,
not eight seconds.
And as in rodeo, when dealing with tribal government the goal is, as
Colombe expressed, you have to turn obstacles into positives.
"I went to work my senior year. I quit school. Work was easier to get 50
years ago. I always worked," Colombe said.
Colombe was good enough at rodeo to make a living. He reminisced for a
moment about his time in the Astrodome rodeo arena the first year it
opened, and he watched as it closed this year.
In 1958 the Relocation Act landed Colombe in Dallas. He went to barber
school, but he was still a rodeo cowboy. He joined the military in 1961,
was assigned to Korea and upon returning to Rosebud, he continued ranching.
Colombe still ranches today.
Colombe learned the skill of business the hard way - by doing it. With a
lack of credit he figured out how to borrow money and with three backers he
went into the cattle business. "It was a good start. I learned working with
bankers, learned about cash flow, negative risk, loan applications, balance
sheets, P and L statements - that was my education," he said.
Colombe admitted that he was good at the cattle business and ranching. "I
made a lot of money at that."
In 1971 he thought of selling out and entering college. But he was drafted
to run for tribal council and he served for eight years.
Colombe acquired a knowledge and interest in government policy, treaties
and land issues, regulatory process while on the council, that lead to his
In 1979 he worked for South Dakota Legal Services co-directing the 2,415
claims process for the Aberdeen Area.
He moved into bidding government contracts for Indian land title. While on
the council he was involved with land consolidation process using Farmers
Home Administration Funds to buy land for the tribe. "In one year we bought
$3 million worth of land at $52 an acre.
"Today that land is probably worth $200 an acre."
He then contracted with the government for land title and records work. "I
did all of the trust land title examination; judges orders and
administrative modifications, and computerized all the land in the Great
Lakes, Minneapolis area; Aberdeen area; Billings area; the Portland area
and then did all the title work for California, and essentially created the
database for the title plant that was set up in Sacramento [Calif.] in
His office in Albuquerque, N.M. also performed title examination for 11 of
the 19 pueblos.
At the same time Colombe owned a general construction company, all while he
continued ranching. He said he will be a cowboy forever.
In 1993 Colombe returned to Rosebud to develop the Rosebud Casino. "It took
four years and was really a fun thing to do. Dealing with tribal government
was a monthly issue, and tribal government is usually looking for someone
to vent their anger on, and I was it - five years nonstop. Very few
compliments, no matter what you did.
"It was a fun deal, I never took it personal. I knew going in what I was
getting into. I call it poverty politics, there is never enough to go
around, somebody has to be the dart board, if you will, or wear the arrow
"I was very happy with what we accomplished there. We had about 95 percent
Native American employment, all of our managers but one were Native
American after the second year. We had a 44 percent net profit after debt
service for the full five years. We had a limited market and limited amount
of slot machines. All the time I was there we never had over 160 slot
When Colombe left the casino he said it was doing about $8 million in gross
slot revenue, which translated into $280 net win per machine. He said the
casino served more than 75,000 pounds of prime rib annually. Beef that came
out of the heartland of Nebraska, which earned a lot of support from the
ranching country in the Nebraska sand hills.
He said the casino was not marketed on the reservation because it would
just recycle poverty dollars. "That does no good for anyone."
Colombe ran for chairman once and lost, another time for vice chairman and
lost. "I've always had a number of people who have asked me to serve in
tribal government. You don't run because you want to run, you run because
you are asked."
He has served for six months in the President's office to date. "The most
interesting six months of my life. I likened it to drinking from a fire
hose. Very soon you forget you were thirsty."
And now, as in the past, how can the Rosebud tribe rise to the challenge of
creating jobs, improving the quality of life and preserving a cultural
future for the young and a good life for the elderly?
"My view right now of economic development is that we have to look within
for starters. What jobs can we create with what we currently have? How do
we leverage those federal funds and turn them into more jobs is the
"We haven't been getting that done. We spent roughly $40 million in housing
funds and probably out of that, haven't built 100 new homes on the Rosebud
in the last six or seven years."
The tribe has renovated some homes that came from airbases while creating
employment, but Colombe said they haven't leveraged the housing funds, nor
has the tribe been able to because of audits.
"Until such time as we get an independent court system and a uniform
commercial code that meets the requirements of the lender and the ability
to garnish and collect on debts we are not going to have a business
development in our own private sector. We essentially do not have a private
Colombe said he received a report that showed eight out of 10 people on the
Rosebud had a negative credit rating. "That is a phenomenal disadvantage. I
think this report is reflective of what our problem is."
However bleak the past may appear to be, the future may take on a different
look if Colombe's wish list is accomplished.
The Rosebud per capita income is $4,100 while the rest of the nation is
five or six times that level.
So what can be done?
"It must be something we want to be successful. In the past we changed
ourselves to meet the needs of federal programs. We need to impress upon
Congress that we can change the federal program to meet our need."
Historically almost every business deal has ended up in a lawsuit. The
tribal council filed a lawsuit against Colombe's company while he managed
the casino in the first five years. The tribe spent $200,000 in attorney
fees and they have won about $1,024.
A large hog farm operated and owned by Bell Farms has created a lawsuit
against the tribe for $45 million for tribal interference with the
contract. Colombe said that was a great concern to him.
"The biggest challenge is not creating jobs or businesses. It's to get our
people to believe that we can have real jobs and real business. The mode
that we are in has created a situation where people have a great deal of
distrust in any change or any venture. And consequently, the task is
getting our people to believe that we are smart enough to do a business
deal that doesn't end up in court and that can create an opportunity for
our own people.
"That's the big challenge. Bringing good people to the table with good
projects and good ideas and good financing - is the thing I know how to