From a Jerky Smokehouse to New Construction: Business Is Booming on Fort Belknap

From a Jerky Smokehouse to New Construction: Business Is Booming on Fort Belknap

Jack McNeel

Buffalo jerky from an upgraded and enlarged smokehouse, a remodeled restaurant to replace one that closed, a gift shop, a construction company and an internet company, all recent improvements to business ventures at Fort Belknap.     

Financial stability has been a frequent problem on many reservations and Fort Belknap is no exception. The Island Mountain Development Corporation was organized to combat that problem with Mike Fox as Special Projects Officer for the Corporation.

Fox headed up their buffalo program, has served on the tribal council, and is one of those individuals with a “can-do” attitude and many ideas to improve the business atmosphere and  provide more services to residents of Hays on the south end of the reservation.

Their on-line Call Center is a loan business. That’s what brings revenue in, enabling them to proceed with other businesses like the Smokehouse Grille. Mike Fox acknowledges there was a lot of concern and a lot of research involved before the Call Center was approved. The nearby Rocky Boy Reservation was already involved and met with the Fort Belknap tribal council. “Everyone was real suspect about it,” Fox recalls. “We did our due diligence and our attorneys researched it.” Even now Fox realizes legislation could pass to eliminate the business but for now it’s working fine. 

“We do business in 34 states,” he says. “These aren’t pay day loans. It’s an installment loan like you’d get from a bank, but it’s easier to get from us. Most of the loans are small, less than $1000.” It also employs 37 tribal people.

Money from the loan business enabled the Smokehouse Grille to open. “We hired consultants to help with remodeling,” Fox said. The Grille is attractive with a nice menu. One unusual item on the menu was June berry soup, and it was good!

The Grille is connected to the Trading Post gift shop which offers a variety of locally made items including rope-bound lamps, inlaid wooden chests and tables, jewelry and art. “For years we’ve had visitors say ‘is there any place we could buy anything?’  The response was, ‘well my cousin might have something’,” Fox laughed. “It’s really nice to have that set up.”

The Smokehouse has been upgraded with an additional smoker, more equipment, and some remodeling. The changes required a brief halt in production but by late July they should be in full production. The second smoker was added to meet the volume needs. Jarrett Azure, the head cook, explained the process of producing jerky. After the fat is trimmed from the meat it goes through the slicer. It’s then weighed and put in a meat vacuum tumbler for an hour which sucks marinade into the meat. Then it’s smoked for two and a half hours. This reduces the weight by half but the additional equipment will allow them to double the previous production.

“We’re going to start producing certain items for the Pine Ridge Sioux like Tonka Bites and the Snack Stick,” Fox said. Fort Peck is also interested in a partnership. “But our flagship is buffalo jerky,” Fox added.

The Snake Butte Construction Company recently started. “We’ve signed a joint venture agreement with an engineering company out of Phoenix and Albuquerque that we’ll be doing governmental contracting with,” Fox explained.

Spirit Box Technologies is another new company, an internet I.T. company. The term ‘spirit box’ was used to describe a computer. “It’s a pretty cool name,” Fox laughed. They have signed to do business with a company in Bozeman which provides I.T. to many schools. “We did Medicine Lake and will be going to a school at Wind River with security cameras and security doors.” The eventual goal is to begin providing data storage.

“Our goal is to get these companies to be 80% of our business and 10-20% from our on-line loans,” Fox explained. “We need to create a revenue source and is why we’re going after government contracts and public school contacts. Our ultimate goal is to build a local economy to provide services for all residents of the reservation, especially on the south end near Hays. One third of our population lives there and basically all they have is a convenience store.”

It’s understood that gaming will never be big here as the location is distant from large population centers. However in mid-June the tribal council approved a plan to build a small hotel adjacent to their small casino. It may not provide significant income but it will add jobs for tribal members above the 20 presently working at the casino.
Financial prospects are looking good at Fort Belknap.

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