"Jealousism" fails to thwart growth of Winnebago business boom
As CEO of Ho-Chunk, Inc., the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska's development corporation, I wanted to write this column to illustrate the changing dynamic and challenges that we face as a successful tribal company.
On one hand, Ho-Chunk, Inc. is a very well respected entity and is nationally known for its achievements in a traditionally difficult environment. On the other hand, Ho-Chunk, Inc. is viewed as a suspicious entity and a focus for a strange new brand of economic racism -- "jealousism."
We have been told for decades to get our act together and develop our economy. Get jobs. Get off welfare. Sober up. You all know the stereotypes. Over the last seven years, we have done everything according to the Corporate America playbook. For three consecutive years, we have won a national award celebrating our diligent efforts at assimilating our business environment. There is one problem: we did a little too well. We have not only developed locally, we have expanded beyond the reservation and have actually been beating our competition head-to-head on a level playing field.
How could this be? We are just Indians. We don't have a big casino. It can't be hard work or dedicated effort. It simply must be something unfair. It must be some advantage related to being a tribe. It must be some kind of reverse discrimination. We are just an Indian company, but one stocked with young Indians with business degrees (11), MBAs (4), and law degrees (2) from schools like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Minnesota and Nebraska.
This new "jealousism" seems to stem from two things. First, it simply isn't acceptable to be openly racist in today's society. (Although I admit that not everyone got the memo.) Second, our economic expansion upsets the status quo, the same status quo that simply viewed Indians as customers to be tolerated, but certainly not the owners of the business. In short, we no longer know our place in the economy.
We have a chain of gas stations. On our reservation we own all of the gas stations and we have implemented a perfectly legitimate tribal tax, which replaces the state tax. Off the reservation, our stores have no tax advantage. We simply choose to sell our gas with a smaller profit margin in order to drive volume. It is easy to confuse this situation and use it to create an impression that we are doing something questionable or unfair in our off-reservation businesses.
This confusion, combined with the "jealousism," manifests itself in many ways. A local city official in Emerson, Neb. felt it necessary to point out four times that he wasn't voting against us at a public hearing because we were Indians. I told him that he didn't have to say it anymore after the fourth time because I was starting to believe him.
At a meeting of the Petroleum Marketers of Iowa designed to raise funding to challenge tribes' ability to implement its own taxation system, I sat in the back and was mildly surprised to be personally demonized as an "Indian lawyer" and to hear Indian jokes. The head of the Iowa association said he was afraid to go down to the reservation because he "might be thrown into an Indian jail and you know what that means ? they tie you to one of their slot machines." I actually laughed at that one.
The city of Lincoln, Neb. recently took three months to issue a remodeling permit on an existing gas station we had purchased and we came within a whisker of going out of business. We were told by a reliable source that a large gas station owner, who apparently has success within the highest levels of city and state government, told our supplier "those f---ing Indians were not coming to Lincoln." At one point, the city tried to shut us down because of "pollution" caused by lights that had been installed at the station since it was built in the 1970s. They also wanted to close access to the streets, which even we know is bad for a gas station. We finally had to play the race card and send down our lawyers. We currently sell over 10,000 gallons of gas a day in Lincoln.
When we purchased our station in Wayne, Neb., it set off another bomb. The local state senator had apparently been demanding written guarantees that we are paying all our taxes. (Which we are, by the way.) Apparently, it is quite common for non-Indian business owners to cheat on their gas taxes and they are suspicious that we might be able to do it legally.
It gets worse. In 1995, securing our first loan took more than a year and visits to six banks. That was okay. We were a new company and just starting out. Since then we have borrowed and paid back millions of dollars in over a dozen separate transactions. However, we were recently denied a loan for a subsidiary with over a million dollars in net income and almost no debt from two local banks on the same day because they "just can't get over the tribal thing" and because our "customers are largely other tribes." We are now dealing with the new Native American bank in Denver that doesn't quite have the same "tribal" issues.
What is sad is that the racist reactions to our business expansions have actually been integrated into our decision making process. We were afraid to close our new store in Wayne during the remodeling after our experience in Lincoln. We didn't want the city finding some reason to shut us down.
Believe me, I could go on. These stories are just from the last few weeks. I decided to share these experiences because I was angry and a little depressed. But I just remembered what my father used to say when people would complain about things that he didn't think were so bad: "Sounds to me like you're crying all the way to the bank with a mouthful."
All in all, I would rather be crying with a mouthful than be begging for scraps.
Lance Morgan is President of Ho-Chunk, Inc., Winnebago, Nebraska.