Blue Stone Strategy Group Chairman Jamie Fullmer at the United Tribal Leaders Summit, North Dakota, September 2014

NIGA-Blue Stone Create First Guide to Tribal Economic Development

Gale Courey Toensing

In 1977, after two years of intensive investigative research, the American Indian Policy Review Commission published a massive and groundbreaking two-volume report (Part 1 and Part 2) on its findings into every aspect of Federal-Indian relations.

Of the report’s 206 recommendations, 43 dealt with economic development issues. While Indian gaming has given Indian country a tremendous economic boost during the 37 years since the report was published, some tribes still struggle with high unemployment and poverty and the social ills they bring.

Now the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) and Blue Stone Strategy Group have partnered in an effort to help remedy those struggles. The two organizations have nearly completed the first of its kind authoritative guide to 21st century tribal economic development. It’s called Defining the Next Era in Tribal Economic Development: The Diversification Imperative for Tribal Economic Development. Like its predecessor in 1977, Defining the Next Era involves input from dozens of tribal leaders, but unlike the earlier report, the new guide focuses solely on economic development and blends together theory, specific examples and vignettes from tribes and research from throughout Indian country.

The project was initiated by NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr., who was  inspired by his father, Ernest L. Stevens Sr., a member if the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin (Turtle Clan). Stevens Sr. is a nationally known Native American leader, historian, educator, orator, and a specialist in economic development – and he was the executive director of the American Indian Policy Review Commission.

While Stevens Jr. is reluctant to use the word “legacy” in reference to the Defining the Next Era project, clearly the work is an homage to his father.

“The book is part of my – I don’t want to say legacy – but it’s part of my responsibility to my dad and it’s a way to go beyond my responsibility as chairman of NIGA where I’m supporting and protecting the gaming industry. That’s a large part of my job, but also I believe it’s important to look beyond gaming,” Stevens Jr. said. “That’s kind of the path my father handed me.”

Defining the Next Era clearly looks beyond the gaming industry, but acknowledges Indian gaming as the foundation and driving force behind diversifying and growing tribal economies across Indian country. ”Gaming is to be intertwined all throughout [the guide],” the project outline says.

The guide’s introduction, written by Stevens, has an overall theme reflecting an “American Success Story.”

 “What we’re trying to do now is not much different than what my father and his colleagues were doing then except for we have a $28 billion industry and we have economic development that’s a little more fluid than in his day but we still have something that they had then – a lot of tribes and a lot of people looking for jobs,” Stevens Jr. said, noting that a lot of tribes don’t have gaming and the jobs it brings. “So the challenge is how do we continue to utilize Indian gaming and economic development to build our economies? It can’t always be just gaming. The bottom line is strategizing and working together and sharing ideas to keep our economies strong and the number two priority is to work as hard as we can to champion our economies within and beyond gaming.”

The guide sees the $28 billion Indian gaming business as a mature industry that will continue to generate revenues, but will not experience the huge growth spurts of its early years in the 1990s and first few years of the 2000s. That’s why tribes need to look beyond gaming for growth in the 21st century and that’s why NIGA and Blue Stone are developing this authoritative guide that outlines a path for the next stage in the evolution of tribal economic development, Blue Stone Executive Director John Mooers told ICTMN.

“The guide is meant to be a practitioners’ guide and will focus on real examples throughout Indian country and ready to use solutions with tangible frameworks leaders can utilize from day one as opposed to a comprehensive study, survey, or white paper for academia or policy makers,” Mooers said.

The guide provides dozens of examples of successful diversification strategies, including  policy changes, if needed, so tribes can own their own gaming machines, which is seen as a necessary step. Here are a few examples:

1.Expand into new markets with existing capabilities or into new capabilities into the same market.

—This can mean extending resort management and hospitality skill sets into elective healthcare services.

—It can mean making investments off reservation in similar businesses to current enterprise.

—It can mean taking existing knowledge around project financing and cash management and starting a banking or credit union enterprise.

2.Consider exporting internal functions: most gaming operations have developed sophisticated in house expertise over the years.

—These operations can be untethered from the Casino and exported to other tribal businesses on and off the reservation.

—By dual classifying and branding these services, they can become enterprises to government departments, other tribes and nearby communities.

The guide includes sections on best practices, investments and leadership, among other topics, and includes interviews with leaders who have steered their nations into successful diversification projects as well as examples of efforts that have missed their mark. A final section links economic development to tribal sovereignty.

Debbie Thundercloud, a former Oneida Tribe chairwoman who has researched the guide’s material, said the NIGA-Blue Stone team expects to complete the manuscript around the end of this year. “I’m so excited about getting our message out there and getting the tribes unified around economic diversification and taking a fresh look at it now that we’ve gone through this great growth spurt with Indian gaming,” Thundercloud said. “Now we have time to step back and say, okay, we have the opportunity to dream and to go to the next level, so where are we going to go with it? I know with each generation we’re going to learn how to do economic diversification better.”

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