Enterprising tribes look beyond casinos

Native Americans try golf, tourism, industrial parks

Continued reliance on casino profits may not be in the cards for many Indian tribes, which are increasingly looking at economically viable alternatives to help raise living standards for one of the most impoverished ethnic groups in the US.

Native American involvement with gambling has deepened amid an overall rise in legal gambling operations in the US. In 2000, tribal casinos, which operate in 23 states, generated $9.2 billion in revenues. Nontribal commercial casinos, open in 11 states, made $25 billion, according to the American Gaming Association.

"A lot of tribes got into gaming with the idea that there is a limited window of opportunity. They knew this [competition] was going to happen," says Michael Peters, a member of the 2,000-member Squaxin tribe near Olympia, Wash.

Now, Mr. Peters says, gambling has become entrenched as a tax base that helps self-governed tribes provide public services to members.

Peters has worked a variety of jobs both on and off the reservation, including fishing, negotiating compacts with state government, and directing an intertribal planning agency of five area tribes.

The majority of tribes in the state - and nationwide - do not operate casinos. Many never have. The most successful tribes without casinos are in Alaska, where several Indian-run corporations were formed after receiving a huge financial boost from the Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. (Some $962 million was awarded to native Alaskans in exchange for dropping land claims covering one-ninth of the state.)

One of them, Arctic Slope Regional Corp., is a Fortune 500 company, while another, the Cook Inlet Regional Corp., has paid $728 million to shareholders since its founding in 1972 - the equivalent of $116,000 per shareholder.

These corporations own a variety a businesses, ranging from construction companies to radio stations.

"Neither Cook nor Arctic has gaming, and they don't necessarily have oil," points out Richard Phelps, CEO of the Virginia-based Falmouth Institute, which publishes the American Indian Report magazine.

Around the country, native American businesses are emerging - from oyster farmers in the Northwest to Everglades tour operators in Florida. Museums have cropped up across the US. Lodging has seen a boom, particularly in the Southwest. Another hot economic-development prospect for tribes in the lower 48: golf. "Tribes are opening courses like there's no tomorrow," he adds. "They already own the land, and don't pay taxes on it. "

Revenues are also increasing in manufacturing, trade, construction, finance, insurance, real estate, transportation, communications, utilities, and other services. (Gaming and government, respectively, remain the biggest sectors.)

Tribes and tribal members who own private businesses, like the ubiquitous minimarts, are growing increasingly creative in the types of economic ventures they are investing in.

In Washington State, they include:

• A resort with forest cabins on what some term "the most romantic beach in the world." The Quileute tribe, in a remote part of the Olympic Peninsula, is also planning a conference center, museum, seafood restaurant, and fishing marina in the hopes of re-establishing a resort village, which previous nontribal owners abandoned in the 1960s.

• A cultural-heritage center with tepees for rent, a restaurant serving traditional food, a conference center, art shows, and powwows developed by the Yakama tribe in central Washington.

• An industrial park, including a Home Depot, in a very visible spot north of Seattle, owned by the Tulalips.

Business success has yet to trickle down to many tribal members, however. In Washington State, average annual wages for tribal employment are less than $19,000 - 40 percent lower than the statewide average, says a 1997 report by the Governor's Office for Indian Affairs, with the most current figures available.

Native Americans also face challenges in terms of access to loans and financing. And tribal politics can be a stumbling block.

"The biggest lesson we've learned is to keep politics out of lending decisions," says Elsie Meeks, executive director of First Nations Oweesta Corp., which helps Indian communities develop financial institutions. "Often tribes put some funding into loans, so they feel like there should be strings attached."

The $540 billion tourism industry may offer the best prospects for noncasino revenue.

With a rising number of tourists from Europe and Japan, several tribes in Washington State, for example, are forming an intertribal tourism association that will market eco-tourism, beach hikes, and resort vacations.

"It will give tribes an opportunity to educate the public on what we have to offer," says Walter Jackson, chair of the intertribal tourism group and member of the Quileute tribe on the Olympic Peninsula.

Tourism, however, is controversial with some tribes. "Traditionalists say we're selling our culture, so we have to go cautiously. We don't want to overdevelop," says Colleen Jollie, associate director with the Governor's Office of Indian Affairs.

For reservations struggling to provide basic water and sewage facilities to their own people, gearing up for visitors could be a monumental task, Ms. Jollie adds. But a new spirit of cooperation among tribal organizations has been a positive byproduct of the move toward tourism.

"The tourism business sparks tremendous economic power when neighbors start working together," she says.

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