For many Indian tribes, their casinos are not only their primary revenue source, but also among the largest employers in the counties where they are located. A February 20 article in the Duluth News Tribune highlighted the commitment of one tribe to protecting its employees as well as its tribal members from recession-related cuts. Here’s the whole story:
Fond du Lac band shows resolve amid recession
The Fond du Lac Band rode out a difficult economy in 2010, avoiding layoffs, erecting new buildings and increasing spending.
By: Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune
The year 2010 was a stable one for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa — good news, leaders say, considering the rough shape of the economy.
“We really havenʼt had revenue growth … but there was a conscious choice not to do any work force reductions,” said Karen Diver, chairwoman of the five-person Reservation Business Committee, the bandʼs governing body. “We didnʼt want to have our employees … and band members feel the brunt if we could carry that.”
The band, one of the largest employers in the region with more than 2,000 workers, “kept a large part of Northeastern Minnesota working at a time when that wasnʼt the norm for the area,” Diver said. “Even a small change in our activities would have a large impact.”
Even as revenue declined, the Fond du Lac Band moved forward on projects, completing a natural resources building, several housing complexes and a drug treatment center expansion.
Some positions went unfilled last year, but the band spent $182 million — including payroll and membership payments. In 2009 it spent less than $160 million.
Diver noted that the bandʼs operations encompass government services as well as sand and gravel, lumber and construction businesses, and that more than half of the bandʼs employees work in non-casino jobs.
The chairwoman, entering the last year of a four-year term, gave a State of the Band address to members last week, an annual event she began three years ago. In it, she highlighted accomplishments for 2010, including:
- The completion of a 22,000-square-foot natural resources building, 24 units of supportive housing, an assisted-living facility and an expanded meth and prescription drug treatment center. Federal stimulus money helped pay for some of the projects.
- The natural resources building — paid for in part with a loan from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community — is on track for gold-level Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification. It will be the first building in Carlton County to be designated LEED-certified. Solar panels, a green roof, reclaimed wood and other recycled materials adorn the building, which also houses the tribal court. It was needed for the bandʼs extensive conservation and environmental work and accommodates 60 employees.
- The supportive housing complex, three townhome structures circling a community building, is one of only two of its kind in Indian Country, Diver said. To live there, members must prove homelessness and are assigned to case workers. The workers provide social services and help residents become self-sufficient. Filling the townhomes cut the bandʼs waiting list for housing by 10 percent. It now sits at about 240 people.
- The new drug treatment center, meant for court-ordered and voluntary clients, has room for 40 people. Thatʼs 15 more than before, Diver said.
The band finished its first reservation-wide direction-planning effort. Members want the band to promote more self-sufficiency, personal responsibility for things like jobs, and more emphasis on Ojibwe language and culture.
The band was approved for more power for its new radio station, WGZS. “Giizis” is “moon” in Ojibwe. The station is set to debut in August. Reach will extend to the Iron Range, into Duluth and down to Moose Lake. Services were added to the bandʼs tribal court, including those for marriages, name changes, domestic partnerships, divorces and small claims. The band is working toward adding business services to encourage investment on the reservation, and a wellness court.
The bandʼs involvement in mining issues continued with its work as a federally appointed cooperating agency for the proposed PolyMet mine near Babbitt. A new environmental plan is in the works, partly because of work the bandʼs environmental staff did to show the original plan was inadequate.
“We didnʼt oppose PolyMet or mining,” said Ferdinand Martineau, secretary/treasurer of the band. “We opposed the way they wanted to do it.” The band is working to protect the Lake Superior watershed.
This year, the band hopes to resolve legal issues with the city of Duluth regarding Fond-du-Luth Casino profits and determine what a new contract with the city will look like. The current one is set to expire in April.
In 2009 the band stopped paying the city casino revenue because it said it wasnʼt getting a fair return in services. The city filed a lawsuit and the band filed a counter-claim. A U.S. District Court later ruled the band must abide by the 1994 agreement. The issue continues to move through the legal system. The band and city have yet to negotiate terms of a new contract. Diver said the lawsuit and a new contract are separate issues.
The band also hopes to raise casino revenue, which is well below pre-recession levels, Diver said. On average, people spent $80 per trip to the casino before the recession and now spend $55 to $60 per trip, Martineau said. “But if people can only afford to spend $50, thatʼs great,” he said. “We advocate people staying within their budgets.”
The tribal council is encouraged by feedback it has received from band members. When a tough policy was enacted in 2008 on felony-level violence and drug offenses, band members were supportive. But the tribal council wasnʼt sure how they would react to its enforcement — which can mean loss of tribal housing and banishment.
“Over the last two years weʼve used it half a dozen times,” Martineau said. “Every single time there was push from the community: ʻWhat are you going to do?ʼ” The response, Diver said, highlights a piece of Anishinaabe culture.
“When you make bad choices, it affects the rest of us,” she said. “Your success is a blessing, so give the best you can give. Weʼre responsible to each other.”