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Winnebago Leaders Honored on Capitol Hill With Prestigious Kennedy School Award

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WASHINGTON, D.C. ? John Blackhawk, Winnebago Tribal Chairman, and Lance Morgan, chief executive officer of H-Chunk, Inc., are coming home from Capitol Hill with a check for $100,000 and a high national honor for business success.

The Winnebago leaders received the prize December 13 in a mid-day ceremony in the Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building. They were one of five winners of the distinguished Innovations in American Government Award presented by Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. The honor, a project of the school's Institute for Government Innovation, went to Ho-Chunk, Inc., chartered by the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, for its successful efforts to generate business development and employment opportunities for Native Americans.

This year is the first in which only five winners were chosen instead of the usual ten, marking the most competitive field in the program's 15-year history.

"The decision to incorporate Ho-Chunk was a controversial issue in 1994," said tribal chairman John Blackhawk. "But receiving the Innovation in American Government Award is a real testament to what we have accomplished as a government and as a people. We are deeply honored."

Because tribal governments are prevented from establishing a stable tax base, they must develop businesses to generate revenue to operate their governments. Like many other Indian communities, the Winnebago tribe struggled for many years with low income, high unemployment and a lack of affordable housing. Its economic problems also led to social problems, causing many young tribal members to leave the reservation.

In 1994, the Ho-Chunk, Inc. economic development corporation was created to generate profits from the tribe's gaming industry and to diversify its business enterprise. Ho-Chunk now operates the tribe's casino and has reinvested its profits into other successful businesses, including hotels, shopping centers, gas stations, a housing manufacturer and three technology businesses, including the popular Native news web site, Indianz.com.

In 1990, the entire discretionary revenue of the tribe was $150,000. As a result of Ho-Chunk's vast success, its revenue is now $50 million per year. In addition, the unemployment rate has dropped from 70 percent to 20 percent since the program's inception.

"Ho-Chunk isn't just boosting the local economy, it is creating needed infrastructure and institutions that will enable this community to chart a more successful course for future development," said Gail Christopher, executive director of the Institute for Government Innovation. "Young people are critical to that infrastructure, and more of them are staying on the reservation because Ho-Chunk provides opportunities that didn't exist ten years ago."

The Winnebago's program continues to have an impact in Indian country as other tribes are replicating the Ho-Chunk system.

"Programs like this are invaluable for our nation," said Stephen Goldsmith, faculty director of Harvard's Innovations in American Government Program. "Local governments facing similar issues can now look to Ho-Chunk as a model for success."

Celebrating its fifteenth anniversary, the Innovations in American Government Awards focuses on the quality and responsiveness of American government at all levels and helps foster the replication if innovation approaches to meeting challenges facing governments.