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Shoshone-Bannock Tribes Prosper Despite Recent Economic Storm

When E.F. Schumacher published Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered during the energy crisis of 1973, it’s a safe bet he didn’t have Indian casinos in mind. Yet the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes perfectly illustrate Schumacher’s ideas of “smallness within bigness” and of building appropriate-size strong local economies that link people, land and community. In the midst of the economy’s plunge in the last few years that has many large and small casino tribes struggling, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes opened a small new casino and are turning a neat profit.

Four distinct Shoshone bands and one Northern Paiute band make up the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, which are located in southeastern Idaho. In 2009 the tribes opened the Sage Hill Casino, a 100–slot machine facility, and the adjacent Travel Center, which has a gas station, café, lounge and shower facilities for truckers.

In what could have been terrible bit of timing, they opened those facilities just as the Indian gaming industry was taking an unprecedented hit: For the first time since the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed in 1988, the Indian gaming market had its first year-over-year decline, with revenues dropping more than one percent, from $26.7 billion in 2008 to $26.4 billion in 2009, according to Casino City’s Indian Gaming Industry Report by Alan Meister, an economist with Nathan Associates Inc. But the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes lucked out with their new Sage Hill Travel Center and Casino, which cost around $16 million. “We funded it entirely on our own, and we didn’t have any delays or issues with the contracts,” says Shoshone-Bannock Tribes chairman Nathan Small. “We’re in our second year of operation, and it’s doing good, actually better than we thought. It’s already paid for itself and is making profits for us.”

Although good luck played a part in the tribes’ economic success, they also benefited from careful long-range planning in a variety of economic initiatives: Diversity was the tribes’ economic strategy long before it became a buzzword during the recession. The Sage Hill Travel Center and Casino is the tribes’ third casino. The main gaming operation, Fort Hall Casino (900 slots), is next to the tribal offices. The tribes also operate Bannock Peak Casino (60 slots), another truck stop and gas station, a clothing store, a museum, an arts-and-crafts retail outlet, as well as a buffalo herd and a profitable agricultural enterprise. The tribes also earn “a few hundred thousand dollars,” Small says, from hunting and fishing tourism. “We get people lining up and setting up tents the night before the permits go on sale and we sell out in one day.”

The tribes’ next project is a hotel and convention center that is currently under construction and expected to open next spring. Their plan is to merge the Fort Hall Casino into the new hotel over the next four or five years and shut down the old casino.

The tribes have not really been touched by the recession, Small says. “As far as gaming goes, we seem to have weathered [the recession] quite well. We don’t have any competition near us so our revenues were increasing the first couple of years, maybe in 2008 and 2009, and in 2010 it started to flatten out.” The tribes have not only thrived through the past few years, they have also helped sustain the local economy through their projects and expansions. “We started building a lot of our construction out here (near the tribal offices).” Small says. “We first got our Justice Department built. That was a $20 million project. Then we built Sage Hill, and we’ve had a couple of other buildings that came up so we’ve been basically doing okay as far as the economic downturn. And because of all of our construction projects, our part of the state hasn’t really had that much of a downturn.”

The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes’ territory–the Fort Hall Reservation—was established by the Fort Bridger Treaty of 1868 as a 1.8 million–acre homeland. Between 1868 and 1932 the Dawes Act and other encroachments reduced the reservation land base by more than two-thirds. Today, the Shoshone-Bannock reservation has 544,000 acres, almost all of which are in tribal and individual Indian ownership, according the tribes’ website. More than 70 percent of the approximately 5,300 enrolled tribal members still live on the reservation. The tribes employ nearly 1,000 Native and non-Native people in various trades, including 575 in tribal government and more than 300 by gaming, with a combined payroll of more than $30 million. The tribal government is increasingly focused on building the tribes’ economy and ensuring the protection and enhancement of the reservation land base for generations to come, according to the website. The tribes’ various enterprises generate enough revenues for the tribal government to operate with supplements from federal grants and provide services and a per capita payment to its citizens. In the past few years, citizens have received around $1,900 a year, Small reports.

Another ace in the Shoshone-Bannock economic hole is the tribes’ unique tribal-state compact which does not require the tribes to give the state a cut of its gaming profits. “We finally got our compact around 2000, but our compact is different from the other tribes in the state [the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, the Nez Perce, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, and the Shoshone Paiute Tribes],” Small says. “There were a lot of issues about the legality of gaming here and so some of the tribes proposed a referendum throughout the entire state.… We didn’t join in that. We stayed on our own.”

The tribes don’t make any contributions to the state and the state does not oversee the tribes’ gaming operation. The compact limits the type of gaming the Shoshone-Bannock can operate to slot machines and requires them to manage their own gaming operations rather than hiring an outside management company—a kind of “don’t throw me into that briar patch…hardship,” Small says. “We’ve had a lot of comments about our contract from other tribes. They say, ‘Gee, people would kill for your kind of compact,’?” Small says, adding, “I guess we’re kind of one of a kind.”