Tribal leaders are working to modernize their economies and infrastructure

By Al Macias
Published: Wednesday, March 15, 2023 - 4:55am
Updated: Wednesday, March 22, 2023 - 9:25am

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Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

Stephen Roe Lewis
Bret Jaspers/KJZZ
Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis in 2021.

Native American communities have long utilized traditional natural resources such as water, lumber, minerals and crops.

As they are taking greater roles in the management and preservation of these precious and sometimes finite resources, many are seeking to diversify and modernize their economies and infrastructure. And the path forward involves maximizing other resources — such as people, open land, and tribal sovereignty.

It’s not a forest or a field but a conference room at the Wild Horse Pass casino just south of Phoenix. The conference is called Wiring the Rez, the 9th-annual Tribal Government E-Commerce Conference. While tribes are engaged in negotiations and court fights across the country over control of their natural resources, many tribes are exploring new opportunities. To do that, infrastructure on tribal lands is needed.

Stephen Roe Lewis is governor of the Gila River Indian Community, which hosted the conference. 

"All things telecommunications that convergence of e-commerce of broadband, that is a necessary infrastructure on a par with roads with education not just for tribal development but for keeping our community connected," he said. 

He says federal funds from the American Rescue Plan are providing his community and others with resources to jump start projects.

"We’re using those very strategically to build a fiber backbone to build out technological infrastructure, not only for our tribal government, for education for workforce development, for health care but economic development as well," Lewis said. 

Casinos are some of the most well known commercial enterprises on tribal lands over the last few decades.

But for many tribes who may not be located close to major metropolitan areas or may not choose to gamble on casino businesses, other non-traditional opportunities are being pursued.

Desert Diamond West Valley casino
Casey Kuhn/KJZZ
Inside the Desert Diamond West Valley casino in 2015.

Trina Starr is the chief administrative officer for the Lac Courte Orielles tribe and she lives on the reservation. Her tribe is located in northern Wisconsin, two and a half hours from a major airport. For her the economic development opportunity was in financial services.

"We had three people in the call center, one compliance. We are now fully you now have our own call center, we do everything in house and we have about 130 employees," she said. 

In addition the financial services operations have opened two more call centers including one 600 miles away in St. Louis. She says in many cases tribes have had to rely on outside expertise. She says the next step is to learn from others and find ways to then move those functions internally using tribal members and avoid paying outside vendors.

Ben Ray is the tribal administrator of Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians in northern California. He says his tribe has formed tribal corporations and developed business models that mirror off reservation models. But what is the right business"

"You kiss a lot of frogs in order to come across the ideas and things that are going to hit," Ray said. "In You know what are we looking at, how much money is going to take, can we invest some of our own money as seed money do we to get investment partners, there are a variety of ways. The key is on not getting stuck in one area."

"You kiss a lot of frogs in order to come across the ideas and things that are going to hit."
— Ben Ray, tribal administrator of Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians

He points to a new commercial center being developed by his tribe.

"We’ve been planning that for five years, but right now, we’re hopefully going to break ground in May. That’s a gas station a C store, we’re forward thinking. We’re putting a lot of EV stations because California as you’ve heard moving to electric vehicles as we all know so you keep thinking about. What’s next?" he said. 

Starr says not every development effort will get the stamp of approval right away

"Just keep an open mind, keep moving forward, no is not never. It’s just not right now," Starr said. 

The management of natural resources has historically been a key for the preservation of many tribal and cultural traditions. Now, non-traditional resources may provide the capital for tribes to develop more opportunities for tribes and tribal members. 

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