akota holy man Black Elk and other 19th century tribal leaders prophesied it would take seven generations to repair the “broken circle” and heal the multiple, layered traumas inflicted on Native American peoples. Do the math and it’s apparent that time will soon be nigh.
Some see great promise in programs administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Indian Affairs Office of Indian Economic Development. Some aren’t waiting for federal largesse.
“When you face an injustice and a system rigged against you, you must then find another way and create a new reality,” Ho-Chunk Inc. President and CEO Lance Morgan wrote a few years ago. Ho-Chunk, Inc. is a corporation owned by the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska whose activities range from casinos to government contracting to real estate development. “My original disdain of federal Indian law and lack of expertise in the field is partially responsible for my success,” Morgan has written.
The enterprise couldn’t have a more dynamic, no-nonsense and eloquent leader than Harvard-trained lawyer Morgan, whose accolades include serving as an economic adviser to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and being named the 2014 Advocate of the Year by the U.S. Department of Commerce. He calls himself an Indianocrat. “I have one issue, and it is us,” he says.
Ho-Chunk, Inc., was formed to diversify the tribal economy away from gaming when competition for the tribe’s casino arrived in 1994 in the form of casinos in two Iowa cities it drew from. Morgan suggested investing proceeds from a successful lawsuit into non-gaming interests.
“It was not well received,” he says, because it had been tried before and failed. His research into why found political interference to be the lead culprit. Ho-Chunk, Inc. was structured to take advantage of all the benefits of the tribe and to minimize political interference. The operation went from five people and $400,000 in revenue to around $450 million and just under 2,000 employees today. It’s also one of the largest property owners in Sioux City.
Ironically, he says, the organization is now on the brink of returning to the casino business in a big way in Nebraska.
“We sponsored an initiative to put gaming at the horse tracks,” he says. “It passed with 69% of the vote in 2020, so we are in the process of building three off-reservation casinos in Nebraska,” located in South Sioux City, Omaha and Lincoln. “We anticipate it will take about $80 million of tax revenue from Iowa, the same group that almost put us out of business. As you can imagine, I don’t have a lot of sad feelings about it. It’s full circle. The desperation of the tribe in the mid-’90s created this entity which 25 years later came back to do the same thing that happened to us to the state of Iowa. It’s an origin and revenge story all in one. And building casinos will add about 2,000 jobs.”
Morgan says nobody took Ho-Chunk Inc. seriously for the first 15 of its 27 years. “But what’s happened is we’ve been getting some investors,” he says. “We’ve just scratched the surface with that. Our partners tend to be tribal in nature because they trust us and don’t get weirded out because of working with a tribe.”
Morgan manages a successful tribal economic development organization. How many others like his does he deem successful?
“I’d say there are about 50,” he says, noting how his law firm has hosted around 100 tribes and helped many of them set up similar corporations to diversify during and after the Great Recession. “You’re seeing tribal corporations emerging throughout the country. The key is having business knowledge and having access to capital through natural resources, gaming or government contracting.”
Another key is that need to depoliticize.
“One tribe that came to visit us doesn’t have staggered terms and holds all-or-nothing elections. They tend to be super negative and everybody turns over,” he recalls. “I knew everything about them already. I had recommended they change their constitution to have staggered terms. ‘How do you know so much?’ they asked me. I said, ‘You’re the ninth version of you guys to come here.’ So continuity is a large part of it.”
Federal and State Government: Can’t Live With ’Em, Can’t Progress Without ’Em
The Indian Affairs Office of Indian Economic Development in March announced the awarding of more than $3 million in Tribal Tourism Grant Program funding to 30 federally recognized tribes and tribal organizations. That followed the November awarding of more than $3.9 million in grants to 25 tribes and tribal organizations under the Native American Business Incubators Program and the Native American Business Development Institute Feasibility Study Program.
Morgan characterizes tribes’ relationship with the feds as one of benign neglect, in part because there’s not enough money to solve tribal problems. The loan guarantee program that allows the guarantee on trust land is their best program, he says, and has a huge economic impact. But at the same time, “Their managing the trust land for us slows things down. Having Native Americans in positions of authority is very, very helpful,” he says in response to my reference to Deb Haaland as the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. But it’s small potatoes. The BIA can change its regulations on land lease, he says, “but it doesn’t move the needle at the scale we need to function at ... The real problem is our interactions with state government. We are competing governments in the same jurisdiction.”
For example, the tribe cannot put property taxes in place because the land is held in trust. “If you don’t have a tax from gas revenue or property taxes, how do you issue a bond to pay for roads and schools?” Morgan asks. The system in effect “forces us into beggar mode,” he says. “The casinos are the fly in that ointment. That gave us capital, but it’s superimposed over a highly dysfunctional system. Ho-Chunk, Inc. is an attempt to minimize that legal environment and accumulate capital. We’ve created this little oasis of socialistic capitalism.”
“It really is quite simple. Federal Indian law is restrictive and tribal law is expansive.”
— Lance Morgan, CEO of Ho-Chunk, Inc., Arizona State Law Journal, June 2017
Enterprises like Ho-Chunk have been crucial in helping the median income for the tribe rise from $29,000 in 1989 to $41,000 in 2014. “We’re literally creating a middle class from scratch,” Morgan says. But the obstacles are still there.
“People have been taking our stuff for so long they think it’s their right. Nobody questions the underlying biases of our system. I’ve made a career of stepping across that line. If you have $400 million, you get influence. I am the same person I was, but it’s easier to get a meeting these days.”
It’s still hard to win. He cites a case where the tribe was trying to get back a 750-acre parcel of land. It went about as well as all other efforts to regain parcels of indigenous land over the past 150 years. Morgan says he tells his people, “ ‘We are on our own, guys. We have to do what we’ve gotta do. People will criticize us for doing something that distorts the status quo, but in the end they’ll get used to it. It’s about right and wrong.’ The state has attempted to punish me on many occasions for stepping outside the box they put us in. I don’t lose one minute of sleep. My job is to feed, clothe and shelter 5,600 Winnebagos. I do everything I can to make it happen.
“Economic power,” he says, “equals political power in America.”