William “Bill” Houle, the former chairman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe who oversaw the band’s early move into tribal gaming, passed at home June 30 surrounded by his family. He was 81.
Houle was a Navy veteran who served the people of the Fond du Lac Band as a member of its tribal council and as chairman of the tribe for 20 years. “He came from that old style of tribal leadership that taught the importance of tribal sovereignty and felt strongly about improving the life of the people at Fond du Lac, at the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and tribal governments and American Indians nationally,” attorney Henry M. Buffalo Jr. told Indian Country Today Media Network. The same was also said in a memorial posted on Turtle Talk. Buffalo, a citizen of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said he was recruited by Houle in 1984 to work as the band’s in-house attorney.
Houle was born August 22, 1931, the second youngest son of George and Nancy Houle. He had twelve other siblings, according to his obituary. He attended Brookston School and graduated in 1949. After graduation he entered the military and spent six years in the U.S. Navy, serving during the Korean War. He was honorably discharged in 1955. Once out of the military, he worked at a steel mill in Duluth, Minnesota. He was married to Frances Bienick for 25 years and they had four children.
Houle was chairman of the Fond du Lac Reservation Business Committee from 1974 to 1988—his goal was to alleviate poverty on the reservation. “He was an important part of what I learned about serving tribal folks as a lawyer and as a leader and just experiencing his strengths and his weaknesses,” Buffalo told ICTMN. “That was the greatest part about him—that he understood his own strengths and weaknesses and he picked a team around him back in the early ‘80s that would help him achieve what his most important objective was, which was protecting tribal sovereignty and improving the lives of Indian people on his reservation and any other reservation, and I was happy to be able to have a small role in assisting him in that.”
Houle understood the importance of building a reservation economy to provide employment, health, housing and education to Indian people, Buffalo said. He also knew how important it was for tribal governments to create diverse sources of revenue by developing enterprises. From manufacturing to gaming Houle fought to create opportunities for all Indian people.
“The legacy of Chairmen Houle’s leadership lives on today with Fond du Lac’s investment in economic stability and community services,” Karen Diver, current Fond du Lac tribal chairwoman, told MENA-FM.
Houle was a prominent figure not only within his tribe and region but also throughout Indian country. He was instrumental in initiating the Fond-du-Luth Casino in downtown Duluth, one of the early tribal casinos, and was a founder and chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association. He served on the Bureau of Indian Affairs National Task Force to study Gaming on Indian Reservations in the early ‘80s.
He and a handful of other leaders were frustrated by the BIA’s lack of interest in establishing regulations to protect gaming. Houle and seven others decided to do something about it. They met in December 1985 and decided to seek protective federal legislation for gaming on Indian lands.
“This, they decided was to be spearheaded by a new tribal entity that in 1986 became the National Indian Gaming Association,” Buffalo said.
Houle was NIGA’s first chairman and served through the adoption of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. Also under Houle’s leadership the Fond du Lac Band was the first tribe to issue bonds under the Indian Tribal Governmental Tax Status Act and to have off-reservation land placed into trust for gaming purposes before the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. “He was an innovator,” Buffalo said.
Houle was also passionate about fishing and brought that passion to fight as a tribal leader for the reaffirmation of hunting and fishing rights in the 1837 and 1854 Treaty areas of Minnesota for Fond du Lac Band members. “That was one of the things he really enjoyed—getting outside and doing some fishing,” Buffalo said.
Funeral services were held July 6, with full military honors by the Cloquet Combined Honor Guard and the Fond du Lac Honor Guard.