Tribes can improve image by investing in Indian country

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Indian Gaming tribes and Indian country in general have taken a beating in
the mainstream press over the last couple of years. The Governor of
California succeeded in using the anti-tribal image of greedy Indian tribes
who don't pay their "fair share" as the hallmark of his campaign to get
elected governor. He utilized it as the catch phrase for his campaign
against two major gambling initiatives. He played on the imagery of the
"well off" Indians using public perception already skewered by
well-publicized stories in the press of tribes building enormous expansions
to existing gaming facilities, new hotels and resorts.

The tribes themselves may have reinforced this image by attempting to
deflect negative press about Indian gaming by showing what it had done for
their reservations and the Indian people. We seem to have forgotten the old
axiom that "nothing is more resented than someone else's success." Even
attempts by tribes to share the wealth with local charities, arts
facilities, symphonies and schools, and to shore up budgets for local
governments, is viewed as trying to "buy off" critics.

The Abramoff/Scanlon debacle made the national press for weeks and played
into anti-tribal sentiments of the greedy tribes spending tens of millions
to try to stave off competition from other tribes and buying political
favors left and right, so to speak. Well-publicized incidence of tribes
spending millions to effect national, statewide and even city and county
elections reinforced the fear mongering mantra that the Indians are trying
to "buy back America" and put a casino in everyone's backyard.

Several tribal national and regional meetings of late have dedicated whole
sections of time to committees appointed to develop strategies for
improving the overall negative public perception that the anti-Indian and
anti-Indian gaming groups have been quite successful in perpetuating.
Unfortunately, these efforts still seemed to be stalled on a central theme
of trying to turn public perception around by showing the success of Indian
tribes and the positive effect of that success on local economies. Again,
we forget that "nothing is more resented than someone else's success." To
continue on this path alone is to throw fuel into the fire.

The tribes need to settle on a national image strategy that does not
exacerbate existing resentment, but rather incorporates a genuine movement,
Indian country-wide, to spread their wealth to other less fortunate tribes.
No, I'm not talking about a self-imposed tax on rich tribes to give to the
poor nor am I talking about any tribe foregoing its federal entitlements in
favor of the less fortunate. What I am talking about is a genuine movement
in Indian country to create a nation-wide system of trade and commerce
between the tribes so that dollars that are generated in Indian country
stay in Indian country.

The more fortunate tribes have, in the last few years, embarked on efforts
to diversify their investment portfolios to ensure that their tribe will
have an economic future in case the bottom ever drops out of Indian gaming.
We have seen a proliferation of Tribal Development Authorities whose sole
purpose is to seek out investment opportunities, both gaming and
non-gaming. Witness the recent announcements of Arizona, Connecticut and
California tribes teaming with out-of-state tribes in business ventures
ranging from hotel construction in cities to resort development for tribes
just entering the gaming business. Witness also the successful business
acquisitions of the Alaska Native Corporations and of other tribes that
have diversified into energy development and manufacturing and assembly.

Some of these tribes and Native corporations have made investments in
ventures with less fortunate tribes that have a work force surplus
(unemployment and underemployment) and that are located in chronically
economically-depressed areas. Some of these ventures have utilized
non-Indian partners who have the business expertise and who can benefit
from the available tax credits for investing in economically-depressed
communities and who have the capital to purchase taxable and non-taxable
bonds that tribes can utilize for financing. These ventures have also taken
advantage of so called "set aside" contracts and minority preference
contracts to make products that are utilized by numerous federal agencies
as well as the military.

What we have not seen in Indian country is a general effort on the part of
well off tribes to partner with the less fortunate tribes for the
manufacturing of products and services that all of the well-off tribes are
buying from non-Indian and non-tribal sources. Just one example is the low
voltage security and surveillance equipment, computer hardware and software
that is utilized in every casino, hotel and resort in Indian country and by
the Transportation Security Agency, the military and other federal
agencies. Other examples include the myriad products that the tribes
replace on a regular basis such as carpeting, seating, cabinetry, kitchen
equipment, service equipment, bedding, hotel amenities, paper products,
uniforms, automobiles, golf carts, golf clubs, trademark clothing and
souvenirs, lighting fixtures, temporary facilities and stage equipment and
tons of food and beverages. All of these things can be produced in Indian
country and marketed to Indian country as well as to federal agencies and
private consumers within the United States and elsewhere. If we could
produce and market even 25 percent of these orders in Indian country, it
would amount to billions. The non-Indian businesses that presently supply
these goods and services would do well for themselves to partner up with
tribes or individual Indian entrepreneurs.

I have visited with tribal business leaders and individual Indian
entrepreneurs from across the nation at various trade shows and
conferences. They all tell the same story of how hard it is to get tribes
and/or their business managers to sign on as customers. They also tell how
they have made valuable tribal contacts only to be put off by non-Indian
managers, and in some cases Indian management, when they try to secure
orders from tribal business entities, especially hotels and casinos. They
especially site the inability to break into the "good old boy" network of
managers and suppliers that have transcended from the non-Indian gaming
industry to Indian gaming. This is extremely sad and frustrating in light
of the fact that almost every tribe I know of has a "buy Indian" policy or
law as well as an Indian preference in hiring and contracting policy or
law. I have heard that some managers have even gone so far as to get the
tribal government to exempt the casino, hotel or resort operations from
such laws.

If the well off tribes would partner up with the less fortunate tribes to
invest in Indian country production of these products and services and make
the commitment to follow their own laws to "buy Indian," we would see an
economic stimulus program for Indian country that would rival the Indian
gaming economic wave. The additional benefit of diversification of the
gaming tribes' economic portfolios to non-gaming economic ventures, in
partnership with the private sector business and financial sources, would
show the world that tribes are willing to share their wealth where it will
do the most good, right at home in Indian country. Such a movement would be
genuine and would improve the public's perception of tribes and even give
politicians from both sides of the aisle the political cover to support
Indian causes.

Harold Monteau is a partner in the law firm of Monteau & Peebles, a
majority Indian-owned nationwide firm specializing in the practice of
federal Indian law, tribal economic development and finance.