Recession impact on Native America varies with tribes

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The recession has had a widely diverse impact on the 360 historically impoverished American Indian tribes in the lower 48 states. If anything, it has created an even larger gap between Native America’s haves and have-nots.

Sixty or 70 tribes with lucrative casinos – many with small populations and located in metropolitan areas – bemoan drops of nine percent or more in gaming revenues. The employees being laid off are largely non-Indians. And tribal leaders view their plight as a momentary blip in an unprecedented economic surge that began two decades ago and will likely resume in a year or so.

Meanwhile, nearly 300 larger and more remote tribes in the Great Plains, upper Midwest and Southwest United States – those with marginal gaming operations or no casinos at all – try to come to grips with the cyclical, growing unemployment, rising energy bills and gas prices and skyrocketing cost of food, housing, health care and other necessities that has plagued them for generations.

“It has made us more poor,” said President Joe Shirley Jr. of the vast and largely impoverished Navajo Nation, where unemployment ranges from 50 to 55 percent.

“It depends on the region,” Alan Gordon, senior vice president of Bank of America’s Native American division, said of the recession’s impact on the Native American economy.

He said housing and credit markets have obviously felt the economic downturn in those tribes in Southern California and Arizona closely tied to the casino.

But non-gaming tribes, those with more diverse economies and the large segment of Indian country that has historically suffered from poverty, unemployment and inadequate housing and health care see the current economy woes as just further anguish.

Tribal leaders and financial experts reviewed the economic state of Native America at the 10th Native American Finance Conference May 12 – 13 at the Venetian/Palazzo Conference Center in Las Vegas, Nev.

Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe of Washington State and treasurer of the National Congress of American Indians, said while “the unmet needs in Indian country are overwhelming,” the economic state of the First Americans has improved over the last three decades.

“If we stay focused, stay confident, we will do better and we will become independent” of the federal government, Allen told conference attendees. “The days of doing a deal on a napkin are behind us,” he said of the spurt of bank financing and economic growth tied to government casinos. “But the money is still out there. We have to be more diligent.”

Tribes are seeking to avail themselves of some $2.5 billion in stimulus funds for Indian country included in President Barack Obama’s economic recovery bill. Most of the funds are earmarked for traditional and renewable energy development, health care, education, water, transportation and other projects.

“It is important that we honor the government-to-government relationship with Indian tribes in this bill and that the funds intended for reservation economies be provided directly to Indian tribes so that they may begin to address their dire economic conditions,” said Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., co-chairman of the Congressional Native American Caucus.

In addition to the $2.5 billion, the legislation includes provisions to expand tax bonding authority for tribes. Supporters said it would spur $2.2 billion in economic development and construction on reservations.

Applying for stimulus funds, tax exempt bonds and new market tax credits will help tribes establish government priorities and become more organized, said Jamie Fullmer, former chairman of the Yavapai Apache Nation and founder of Blue Stone Strategy Group.

Meanwhile, tribes involved in the $26.5 billion government gaming industry see a quick turnaround from the nationwide dip in discretionary spending on casino slots and table games.

Arizona tribal casino revenue dropped 9.4 percent in the first quarter of 2009, an improvement from the 16.1 percent decline in the last quarter of 2008. The drop is also much less than the nearly 20 percent decline in revenue on the Las Vegas Strip.

Sheila Morago, executive director of the Arizona Indian Gaming Association, said the over-50 segment of the population jokingly referred to as “boomer geezers” is growing and will likely fuel an increase in the Arizona gaming market.

“Boomer geezers are going to be our bread and butter,” Morago said. One in five adults are over 50, she said, Arizona’s retirement community is growing and “they have more than half their lives ahead of them.”

Allan and Joseph Kalt, co-director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, said the recession is affecting tribes that two decades had no economy to speak of.

“Decades ago, there weren’t economic conferences like this.”