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This story developed out of a collaborative series, “At the Crossroads,"with Indian Country Today, the Institute for Nonprofit NewsWisconsin Watch and eight other news partners, examining the state of the economy in Indian Country. 

Ilana Bar-av and Jim Malewitz
Wisconsin Watch

The Ho-Chunk Nation has a bright economic future, ripe with prospects to diversify its economy beyond gaming. That’s if the tribal government more clearly communicates with citizens and opens space for entrepreneurs and private companies to invest in tribal communities, Ho-Chunk officials and citizens said during a Wisconsin Watch event held on May 12.

“I’d say the sky’s the limit. Because if we do provide the opportunity for a corporation to move, they have that ability, they have that agility to invest,” said Dan Brown, executive manager at Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison and a former Ho-Chunk Nation vice president, who spoke as a Ho-Chunk citizen. “I think we have to have these conversations.”

Bettina Warner, who in April became the tribe’s new economic diversification director, agreed.

“We need to put pressure on the (Ho-Chunk) Legislature to sever ties, establish a business corporation and just start from there,” she said. “This business corporation just needs to be a self-sustainable, self-reliant entity and not be micromanaged.”

Marlon WhiteEagle, the tribe’s president, said “it’s about time we take those steps” to separate the Ho-Chunk government from businesses.

Appearing as a Ho-Chunk Nation citizen, Dan Brown, left, executive manager at Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison and former Ho-Chunk Nation vice president, discusses ideas for diversifying the tribe’s economy at “Share your voice: How to build a stronger economy for Ho-Chunk Nation,” on May 12, 2022, at the Ho-Chunk Nation District 1 Community Center in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. He was joined by Bettina Warner, the tribe’s economic diversification director. The discussion followed a collaborative series, "At the Crossroads," with Indian Country Today, the Institute for Nonprofit News, Wisconsin Watch and eight other news partners. (Photo by Ilana Bar-av for Wisconsin Watch)

The discussion between panelists and about two dozen audience members unfolded at the Wisconsin Watch event, “Share your voice: How to build a stronger economy for Ho-Chunk Nation,” at the tribe’s District 1 Community Center in Black River Falls, Wisconsin.

Sponsored by Wisconsin Humanities, the event offered space for Ho-Chunk citizens to interact with their leaders and share perspectives for future Wisconsin Watch reporting on the Ho-Chunk economy and quality of life issues. The event also explored how citizens and journalists can build trust to ensure that news media accurately reflect Ho-Chunk perspectives.

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Moderated by Indian Country Today President Karen Lincoln Michel, a former Wisconsin Watch board member and Ho-Chunk citizen, the discussion unfolded two years after COVID-19’s shutdown of casinos in early 2020 forced mass layoffs and cuts to services. Casino officials say revenue is now eclipsing pre-pandemic levels, but pain from the temporary shutdown still lingers, forcing Ho-Chunk and other tribal nation leaders to confront their economy’s outsized reliance on gaming — a sector that typically generates about 75 percent of Ho-Chunk revenue, according to WhiteEagle.

The tribe, which has about 5,500 citizens in Wisconsin, has struggled to diversify its economy since gaming revenue transformed life beginning in the 1980s, but some see promise in developing land held in a federal trust, information technology ventures, federal contracting and boosting entrepreneurship.

Ho-Chunk citizen Anne Thundercloud, owner of Thundercloud Communications, and Wisconsin Watch reporter Mario Koran participate in a Wisconsin Watch panel discussion with Tribal President Marlon WhiteEagle, on screen, on May 12, 2022, at the Ho-Chunk Nation District 1 Community Center in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. The discussion followed a story by Wisconsin Watch as part of a collaborative series, "At the Crossroads," with Indian Country Today and eight other news partners, examining tribal economies. (Photo by Ilana Bar-av for Wisconsin Watch)

Speaking at the Wisconsin event, Warner listed additional ideas for new economic ventures, including large-scale rental properties, truck stops, solar farms and wind turbines, a lithium battery recycling plant or semiconductor manufacturing. She said she would launch a community assessment to seek public input.

“Every community is different, and we need to know what every tribal member thinks and feels for their own particular area and community,” she said.

Such efforts will only succeed if the tribal government improves communication with citizens, several audience members said.

“Our people have not gotten the full story of many things, when it comes to government or businesses or financials. All that information needs to get out there,” said JoAnn Jones, associate judge for the Ho-Chunk Nation Trial Court and former Ho-Chunk Nation president. “So communication has to start with people. They have to know what's going on.”

Read the entire special report
‘At the Crossroads’
Day 1
‘Stealth’ economy for tribes hides billions in rural jobs, growth and revenue
Day 2
Tribes contemplate future beyond casinos
Cleanup of abandoned uranium mines means jobs
Sports team provides economic boost for OK tribe
Day 3
Renewable energy: Jobs of the future
‘Reservation worthy’ cattle operation expands tribal enterprise
Work Penalties: Why jobs can cost more than being unemployed
Day 4
Boom or bust: Oil industry hits North Dakota
Green energy’s hidden costs spark opposition
Working Together: Tribal partnerships bring regional jobs

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