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Three tribes come together in business deal

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SANTEE, Neb. - In coming to the aid of the beleaguered Santee Sioux Tribe of Nebraska, cooperating tribes have launched a business project that is helping open a new phase in Native economic development.

The opening of the Pony Express motor fuel plaza here might seem modest compared to multi-million dollar casino and hotel projects elsewhere, but it is an example of an inter-tribal partnership that could be the new means for distributing wealth throughout Indian country. Another four-tribe partnership announced several weeks earlier will open a hotel in Washington near the new National Museum of the American Indian.

The Pony Express plaza will provide nine jobs and have a major impact on the Santee reservation. More importantly, it is a collaboration growing out of support for the Santees in their bitter legal fight with the federal and state government, a court battle that led to the confiscation of all the Santees' non-government funds.

The cooperating tribes and their business arms are Ho-Chunk, Inc. a business corporation of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, the Mdewakanton Dakota Tribe of Prior Lake Minnesota, also called the Shakopee tribe and the Santee Sioux Economic Development Corporation, a business arm of the Santee Tribe. Because of the federal seizure of the Santee bank accounts in a suit over its Ohiya casino, the plaza will be managed by Ho-Chunk Inc.

An open house and celebration brought tribal members and area residents together to honor the people involved with the operation.

Said Roger Trudell, chairman of the Santee Sioux Tribe, "We are here recognizing how tribes can work together to accomplish things, and especially to recognize the Winnebago Nation and Ho-Chunk Inc. and also the Mdewakanton Shakopee community who have funded some of our plans.

"Without the assistance of those two tribes we would be pretty much where we were 10 years ago."

For the past seven years the Santee Tribe has been in litigation over the allegedly illegal operation of its Ohiya Casino.

The federal government seized the bank accounts of the Santee five years ago in order to recoup fines imposed by the U.S. District Court for the illegal gaming operation. The fines started at $3,000 per day and were then increased to $6,000 per day for the operation of a Class III casino without a compact with the State of Nebraska, in alleged violation of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA).

The Ohiya Casino, in what was formerly a small caf? in the town of Santee, is now operating without need of a compact using reel bingo machines, which are considered Class II by the National Indian Gaming Commission. Much of Indian country and nearby county social service departments rallied to the support of the Santee when the federal government seized bank accounts and funds used for social services for tribal members. Many people in the tribal government and health related areas continued to work without pay. The government funds were eventually excluded from the seizure based on court orders.

This action caused potential lenders to stay clear of the Santee, which resulted in a slowdown in the expansion of any job related businesses or long range planning.

Currently the state has not raided any financial accounts, Trudell said, because no non-governmental funds are located in the bank accounts. Most of the tribe's income comes from investment funds, which are exempt from seizure by the federal or state governments.

At the opening ceremonies for the plaza, Trudell said the Shakopee Tribe indicated a few years ago that it would like to assist the Santee to put together a business operation that would help make the Santee self-sufficient. The Shakopee operate the country's second largest casino and have helped other tribes with grants or loans for business operations

Trudell also thanked the Winnebago tribe for its management assistance. "The Santee and the Winnebago have a relationship that goes back many years. They offered the assistance of Lance Morgan, the president of Ho-Chunk, to try to assist the tribe to develop projects either on a partnership basis or for the Ho-Chunk to start a development and employ people," Trudell said.

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Ho-Chunk, Inc. will furnish the fuel and training for employees and manage the business until the Santee will be able to purchase the business, said Morgan. The purchase price, he said, would be $1. Ho-Chunk Inc owns Ho-Chunk Distributing, which supplies motor fuel products to a number of tribally owned service stations in the region.

The Santee station will eventually help stimulate additional economic opportunities on the northeastern Nebraska reservation.

"There are now 25-30 jobs for people who didn't have jobs before. They can buy things for their children that they couldn't buy before," said Thelma Thomas, vice chairwoman of the Santee Tribe.

"Nobody would work with the tribe, because of the legal problems and Ho-Chunk, Inc. came to our rescue. They brought in the money and the expertise to help the Santee. Shakopee came in with the financial help. We are proud of what we have," she said.

Unemployment on the reservation is hovering at an estimated 75 percent, because even though some new jobs are created, more and more people are returning home. An estimated 1,000 tribal members live on or near the reservation.

The Santee charge a lower rate for motor fuel than off-reservation convenience stores nearby, and their owners are complaining, Thomas said. "We are a sovereign nation and it's time to take our place," she replied.

The Santee have a compact with the state of Nebraska that allows the tribe to collect the taxes for the motor fuel and pay the state a percentage of those taxes. Neither Thomas nor chairman Trudell revealed the details of that arrangement.

Trudell said the relationship with the state is fairly decent except where gaming is involved. The Santee have accused the state of failing to negotiate in good faith over gaming compacts.

"Gov. (Mike) Johanns recognizes the fact that the tribes have some sovereignty and some autonomy, but we just can't get him to bend on the gaming," Trudell said.

Trudell also said that the state is cooperative with economic development other than gaming, because of criticism that most of its efforts have focused on the I-90 corridor around Omaha.

According to Morgan, the Santee got a better deal with the state than the Winnebagos, who pay the state 15 percent of the take on their motor fuel sales. With the opening of the Santee store, Ho-Chunk Inc. now either owns or manages 11 stores.

Trudell said the casino and the fuel plaza might be the start of something for the future.

"The tribe will survive these times and it falls on our shoulders to make things happen. We will attack the issues, put them aside and move forward and create things for ourselves," Trudell said.

Future plans include an RV park, a hotel and an amphitheatre to provide entertainment for the entire region. Trudell also said the tribe will search for ways to cash in on the Lewis and Clark Bi centennial that starts in 2003.

The Santee Tribe is located along the Missouri River in prime hunting and fishing areas.