The Crow Creek Sioux Tribe’s chairman and casino are boycotting suppliers of goods and services in Chamberlain, South Dakota, following the refusal of the local high school to allow a Sioux honor song at the recent graduation ceremonies. See “Crow Creek Sioux Boycott Border-town Businesses Over Banned Honor Song,” for more on how the embargo got underway. The boycott has thrown a spotlight on the economic relationship of South Dakota tribes, their border towns and the state as a whole.
South Dakota is fourth in the nation for dependence on Washington for its state budget, with federal dollars paying the tab for nearly half of everything from health care to law enforcement. The state is eighth in the nation for receipt of farm subsidies. South Dakota is a place where individuals and government depend—a lot—on other people’s money. That includes Indian money.
We saw in the first article in this series that the dearth of businesses on many reservations means residents looking for anything from groceries to home repair spend their money in border towns. Nick Tilson, of Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, in Sharps Corner, South Dakota, calls the border town–reservation symbiosis “a parasite-host” relationship.
Shopping is just the beginning. In his book The Rights of Indians and Tribes, attorney Steven Pevar cites several academic research papers on tribes’ shares of their states’ economies. One study found that from 1979 to 2002 Wyoming received $283 million more in taxes from one Indian nation’s mineral production than it returned in services and other funding. In another paper Pevar describes, economist Steven Peterson determined in 2009 that five Idaho tribes together contributed nearly $1 billion in economic activity to the state, while producing nearly $25 million in state and local taxes.
Dr. Malia Villegas, Alutiiq/Sugpiaq and policy research center director of the National Congress of American Indians, noted additional studies revealing that tribes and tribal entities are economic engines in California, North Dakota, Oregon and Washington, among others.
Gaming at casinos, such as the Crow Creek’s Lode Star Casino and many others, is the source of much tribal money. The National Indian Gaming Association has published nationwide figures for 2009: $26 billion in gross revenues; $3.2 billion for associated expenditures such as entertainment and lodging; $9.4 billion in federal taxes and other payments; and $2.4 billion for state taxes and other payments. Indian gaming’s job creation was substantial—628,000 jobs for American Indians and others, said NIGA.
In Connecticut, according to Pevar, a 2005 study calculated that tribal casinos created 65,000 jobs and contributed $1 billion to the state budget, while rescuing the deteriorating economy of the southeastern portion of the state.
Casinos are not the only reservation employers; non-Indians as well as Indians work at additional enterprises, tribal departments, nonprofits and schools. The many powwows and other Native events generate even more economic activity. The United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota, reckoned in 2011 that its annual powwow had a direct contribution to the local economy of $4.7 million (excluding taxes and other associated impacts). Also that year, Alaska television station KTVA reported that the Alaska Federation of Natives meeting was Anchorage’s biggest convention, bringing in $7.2 million in spending on hotels and more, according to the city’s convention and visitor’s bureau.
We must not forget leasing, said Native American Rights Fund attorney Brett Lee Shelton, who is Oglala Lakota. He noted that farmers, ranchers, mining operations, oil companies and many more individuals and businesses lease Indian land—benefitting from access to tribal resources, as well as from the bargain-basement prices the Bureau of Indian Affairs sometimes charges.
The United States has a long history of valuing Indian resources at below-market rates when it leases or sells those resources to outsiders, according to Shelton. “This is a huge drain on Indian economies and is essentially a taking of resources that hadn’t yet been taken in the treaty-making process. If you wanted to design a system to keep Indian landowners poor, you would use exactly this sort of trick.”
In 2011, Indian owners of 42,000 acres of allotments on the Fort Berthold Reservation, in North Dakota’s Bakken oil-producing region, sued the U.S. government. The allottees alleged that the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is responsible for leasing Indian land in the “best interests” of its owners, approved leases for as little as $110 per acre. The suit charges that the leases were then “flipped” for as much as $10,000 per acre. The lawsuit is still before the courts. (Related story: Beckoning the Bakken: Will the oil Boom Reach Montana’s Impoverished Fort Peck Tribes?)
At Crow Creek, Sazue and a forward-thinking tribal council have their eyes on a better economic future for their people. Recently, the group has announced an innovative home-construction program that trains youngsters in building trades while producing homes for tribal members, the development of a business incubator, participation in a wind power deal announced at the 2013 Clinton Global Initiative America, and farmers markets and healthy food initiatives throughout the reservation.
Sazue continues to pursue the idea of an on-reservation bank. He would not provide further details about the talks involved, other than to say a local bank would provide enduring benefits. “With a bank, we would keep as much of our economy here as possible,” he said. “It would be very good for us.”
This article is part of a series appearing this week about Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, the boycott of a South Dakota border town and ways the tribe is addressing its economic issues through innovative business-formation and housing programs.