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Self-reliance takes Winnebago nation far in 10 years


On trips to the Midwest in the early 1990s on the hunt for stories, I began visiting tribal families of the Winnebago Nation. Their 30,000 acres on the sere plains of the Missouri River Valley was home to 1,800 Native Americans, with another 2,700 living in the area.

Nearly every economic and social blight was there: 80 percent unemployment, high rates of alcoholism, substandard housing. But present also were several Winnebago leaders -- tribal chairman John Blackhawk, physician assistant Andy Thundercloud, buffalo herdsman Louis LaRose -- who were people of rare political grit and moral fiber. They believed that self-reliance, not self-pity and assuredly not undependable federal largesse, which was more crumbs than bread anyway, was the way to defeat their nation’s poverty.

Such talk had been heard before in Indian Country, only to come to nothing. Not this time. In December at a public ceremony in Washington, Ho Chunk, Inc., the Winnebago’s economic development corporation, won a $100,000 Innovations in Government Award given by the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and funded by the Ford Foundation.

Out of 1,062 competitive applications, Ho-Chunk was one of 15 finalists and one of five $100,000 winners. The sum is only a little less than the tribe’s entire discretionary revenue in 1990. Last year’s topped $50 million.

The story of that astounding turnaround can be traced to a combination of enlightened money management, wise investments and persuading younger Winnebagos to go off to the best schools and come back with their skills. Among the latter is Lance Morgan, a Harvard Law graduate who is now the corporation’s CEO.

Shortly after the 1988 federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act gave tribes “the exclusive right to regulate gaming activity on Indian lands,” the Winnebagos began pooling resources to open a casino. Catering to people’s gambling urges was far from an ideal solution to poverty, but it was better than despair. In 1995, the neatly named WinneVegas casino opened on tribal land.

Although it has not proven to be an automatic money spigot -- as have urban-based Indian casinos in Connecticut and Minnesota -- the gaming tables brought in sufficient profits to invest in more stable businesses. These include hotels, shopping centers, a Native American news Web site, a housing manufacturer, three technology businesses and gas stations. Unemployment is down fourfold to 20 percent.

In my many visits to the Winnebago Nation, I was taught by Chairman Blackhawk and others something of the tribe’s history. It was the accurate kind, not the winner’s version of what happened, as routinely found in school textbooks and cowboy movies. In 1832, a treaty was signed between the tribe of Gen. Winfield Scott who represented the U.S. government. It required that the Winnebagos cede to well-armed settlers 7 million acres of arable riverbed land in what is now Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin. In exchange, the government would provide benefits to the tribe, including 12 yokes of oxen, 1,500 pounds of tobacco, a school to impart whatever “useful knowledge the president of the United States would prescribe,” and health care.

As it turned out, the cattle, cigarettes and schoolhouse were delivered on time but not the health care. That took 162 years. Eight years ago, federal funding came through for a $26 million hospital, one that is now regarded as a model facility in the region.

Not far from the hospital is another success, the Little Priest Tribal College. I was at its opening in the summer of 1996 when seven full-time professors and eight adjuncts began teaching some 70 students. Little Priest is named after a revered Winnebago chief who created schools and brought teachers -- Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament -- to the community before his death in 1866.

At hearings before a Congressional committee in the mid-1990s chaired by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., a mouthy and arrogant Donald Trump railed against Native American intrusions into the gambling world -- meaning Trump’s world. The Emperor of Atlantic City fumed that Indians were incompetent to manage their own affairs, not to mention the complexities of casinos. Miller told Trump that his comments were unfounded and stupid, an assessment that still holds.

The example of the Winnebagos is a rebuke not only to the Trumps of the world but to all those who don’t understand that the surest way to win against the odds is to play the self-reliance card.

Colman McCarthy directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, D.C. His next book is I’d Rather Teach Peace: The Class of Nonviolence (Orbis).

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2002