All three northern Minnesota tribes suffer from high unemployment and stagnant economies. This two-day summit is the first time the tribes have joined together to talk about solutions. Leech Lake Tribal Chairman George Goggleye says the goal of the summit is to explore potential business and economic opportunities from which the three tribes will grow healthy, self-sufficient communities.
"We've talked about this in our planning sessions, that, how Red Lake could help Leech Lake," Goggleye says. "How Leech Lake could help White Earth, and how we could just keep things within our bands, whether it be products or services or whatever it may be. That opportunity has always existed, so, this is where it all starts."
Casinos have been the primary economic engine for the tribes for nearly two decades. Gaming has created thousands of jobs in the region. But tribal leaders say the three reservations are geographically isolated, making casinos far less lucrative than tribal gaming operations closer to the Twin Cities.
One message echoed over and over at the summit is that the tribes need to develop economies that go beyond gaming. Dave Anderson was the keynote speaker on the first day of the summit. Anderson, an Ojibwe Indian from Wisconsin, is the founder of Famous Dave's restaurant chain. He believes one solution is to encourage more private business ownership.
"It just can't be tribes owning businesses," Anderson says. "I think just do to the nature of casino gaming, the tribe has to be in ownership of that. But as far as true economic development, I think the future for Indian Country lies in individual entrepreneurship."
The number of private businesses in Indian Country has grown, but that growth has been slow, says Jackie Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. She says it's more typical that people living on reservations go off the reservation for goods and services; to get their car fixed, go shopping or go to a movie. Johnson says that's got to change.
"What we haven't done is create a large enough service industry to ourselves," says Johnson. "We still tend to go off the reservation for our services and until we get that turned around, I mean that is an economic opportunity. Those individual entrepreneurs will make a difference to our local economies."
Tribal governments have tried to play that role, with some success. The Red Lake tribe owns its own grocery store. The Mille Lacs tribe has one, too, as well as a bank and a few other businesses.
But private business development has been slow according to Johnson, because many tribal members don't own their own homes and so don't have the necessary credit for business loans. She says not enough people in Indian Country are literate in business and financial skills.
"Government management is a business. Housing development is a business," Johnson says. "Health care delivery is a business. And are we treating those as businesses and therefore building a workforce that understands it has a business philosophy? Are we taking our children and giving them the right financial literacy skills that they need to be in a competitive world?"
Efforts to create non-casino jobs on the reservations have had limited success. Over the past few years, the Red Lake Tribe has started a water bottling plant, a door factory and a modular home factory. All of those businesses failed. Red Lake Tribal Chairman Buck Jourdain blames politics and poor planning.
"A lot of the projects that don't succeed in Indian Country are attributed to a rush to create jobs in general," Jourdain says. "A lot of times when you have new administrations come in, they don't want to waste a lot of time doing the educating, doing the due diligence and a lot of thorough planning. And you spend a ton of money and throw it into projects that are not well thought out. And also, tribal politics plays a part in that."
Many in Indian Country say government reforms that separate politics from business are necessary for tribes to develop healthy economies. Former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., speaks to summit participants and they will also brainstorm more economic development ideas.