Tribal Leader Roundtable: Spotlight on 2023 and Beyond

Winding road

This month we spoke with four tribal leaders about the greatest challenges and rewards for this year, promoting strong leadership within and current/upcoming projects or initiatives. Here is what they had to say…

Stephanie Bryan, Chairwoman
Poarch Band of Creek Indians

Wind Creek Atmore – Atmore, AL; Wind Creek Bethlehem – Bethlehem, PA; Wind Creek Montgomery – Montgomery, AL; Wind Creek Wetumpka – Wetumpka, AL Wind Creek Curaçao – Curaçao; Wind Creek Aruba – Aruba; Wind Creek Chicago Southland (opening spring 2024) – East Hazel Crest, IL; Wa She Shu Casino (being sold to Washoe Development Corp July 1, 2023) – Carson Valley, NV

Chairwoman Stephanie Bryan

CHALLENGES/REWARDS: The pandemic may be officially over, but we continue to face real challenges in its aftermath that are significant and far-reaching. For example, the lingering need to care for Covid patients is a critical issue, and it’s essential that we assess the healthcare needs of both adults and children who have suffered long-term effects of the virus.

Our school-age children were at home for almost two years without the structure, educational instruction, and socialization that school provides, and understanding the short and long-term implications of that is hugely important to us. We are working to assess their needs and ensure that they receive the support they need to catch up, move forward, and thrive. Hiring more staff to assist with the needs of our elders and children is a positive step, and it’s important that we continue to prioritize their care. The increase in mental healthcare needs and addiction treatment are also significant, and we must work to provide resources and support to those who are struggling. Finding solutions to these challenges is not easy, but we are committed to working together and prioritizing the needs of our community, and I believe we can meet the challenges head on. Through it all, we have learned the importance of continuing to support one another and work collectively towards a brighter future.

When I think of the rewards we are reaping this year, I would have to say starting construction on our own meat processing plant is one of them. Covid made us realize that there were potential threats to our food supply, so we pushed to have a meat processing plant that will provide services to our own Perdido River Farms cattle operations and the surrounding agricultural community. We saw that it was essential for us to be proactive and lead the way in sustainable, local food production if we and our neighbors were to have the resources we needed. This is a step towards self-sufficiency that will ensure our community has access to fresh, healthy food. I also think it would make our ancestors very proud.

Also on the rewards side, our gaming businesses are doing well and we are opening a beautiful big addition to Wind Creek Bethlehem. I am really excited about that and glad it will continue to offer great entertainment in that community, as well as support jobs for the folks who live in and around Bethlehem, PA.

PROMOTING LEADERSHIP: We did it with purpose and a plan. We created a “career path forum” that includes a very structured, well thought out mentor/protégé program designed to identify and develop rising leaders. It is essential that we train the next generation to carry on our values of integrity and respect, as well as our work ethic. By investing in our future leaders, we are ensuring that our community will continue to thrive for generations to come. We are committed to prioritizing the development of our young people and to providing them with the resources and support they need to succeed. 

FUTURE PROJECTS/INITIATIVES: Our sovereignty is constantly being attacked, and it’s essential that as leaders, we take action to protect our lands and our community’s future. One way to do this is by involving the younger generation in the fight on a national level so that they understand both the history, the current political environment, and the critical need to continue the fight in the future. By educating and empowering our young people, we are ensuring that our community’s sovereignty and rights are protected for generations to come.

Our gaming businesses, that have provided us with needed revenues to run our tribal government and have given us financial security, continue to do well. We have expanded into the greater Chicago market and will open Wind Creek Chicago Southland in the second quarter of 2024. The 70,000 sq. ft. casino will feature 1,350 slot machines, 56 table games, entertainment, dining, a 252-room luxury hotel, and will bring 800 jobs to the south suburban region. Wind Creek has a proven track record of success in developing high-quality, successful casino and entertainment projects, and we are excited about this project in Chicago.

We also recently acquired an existing casino property in Miami, FL, and are getting to know that incredibly interesting, diverse community and our great customers in that market. We are really excited to bring the Wind Creek brand of excellence in hospitality and tourism to that property and community.

Additionally, we made a decision some years back to invest in a diversified business plan because we believe that it is crucial to weathering economic downturns and to ensuring a sound and stable financial future for our community for years to come. But at the end of the day, sovereignty is at the center of our ability to continue as a thriving tribal nation. We must continue to prioritize the protection of our sovereignty for the future of our community and subsequent generations of Poarch Band of Creek Indians.

Joe James, Chairman
Yurok Tribe

Redwood Hotel Casino – Klamath, CA

Joe James

CHALLENGES/REWARDS: The Yurok Tribe is in the middle of a major growth period, which is both challenging and rewarding. We are developing multiple businesses in environmental restoration, commercial construction and telecommunications.

Right now, we are planning a $61 million project to install 62 miles of middle mile fiber optic cable in an area with consistently unreliable internet services. Funded by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the project will bring broadband to nearly 1,000 homes, 110 businesses and 18 anchor institutions. Many of the homes and businesses will gain first-time access to high-speed internet. The project will also create approximately 200 new jobs for local people. In addition to creating jobs, the tribe will be training a dozen Yurok citizens in the installation, maintenance and operation of broadband equipment. The training will increase the sustainability of Yurok Connect, a Yurok-operated wireless internet service provider.

This year, the tribe also launched a tribal 8(a) contracting company called Prey-go-neesh Construction. The corporation received contracts for multiple projects in California and across the U.S. Even though we recently started the 8(a) firm, the tribe has much construction experience, which has helped us secure project contracts.

PROMOTING LEADERSHIP: We go to great lengths to hire, train and promote Yurok citizens. As a result, our facilities are staffed by dedicated, highly trained and well-paid individuals who care deeply about their work. Their professional pride extends throughout our workforce. Our employees are our greatest asset, and every member of our team embodies strong leadership. Patrons of tribally owned businesses, such as Redwood Yurok Canoe Tours, Mad River Brewing Company and all other Yurok-owned businesses, can expect to encounter professionalism in every interaction.  

FUTURE PROJECTS/INITIATIVES: I look forward to seeing the removal of four dams on the Klamath River, the lifeline of the Yurok people. For more than two decades, the tribe has fought to remove the dams and restore the river for our salmon. The first dam will be deconstructed this year. The remaining three will be decommissioned in 2024. The Yurok Fisheries Department and Yurok Tribe Construction Corporation will be intimately involved in the restoration of the river after the dams come out. It fills my heart to see my people bringing the river back to life. The Fisheries Department and Construction Corporation are also working on large-scale environmental revitalization projects on the Sacramento River, Trinity River and Redwood Creek. With more than 50 biologists, engineers and other subject-matter experts, the multidisciplinary Yurok Fisheries Department and Yurok Construction Corporation are known for building some of the best salmon habitats on the West Coast. The healing of the natural world is an integral part of our culture and our contemporary economy.

William Reynolds, Chairman
St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin

St. Croix Casino, Turtle Lake – Turtle Lake, WI; St. Croix Casino, Danbury – Danbury, WI; St. Croix Casino,
Hertel Express – Webster, WI

William Reynolds

CHALLENGES/REWARDS: The St. Croix Tribe’s biggest challenge for 2023 is illegal gaming, i.e., the unregulated gaming occurring every day in the State of Wisconsin in the form of multi-denomination/multi-game machines, poker, pull tabs, dice games, and sports boards. Indian casinos are extremely regulated entities for the state, yet taverns are allowed to operate these games without any oversight. Wisconsin tribes would like to see this changed this year.  

As far as rewards in 2023, the St. Croix Tribe continues to acquire land for expanding housing needs and to protect natural resources for tribal members. St. Croix is unique in its non-contiguous land space. Unlike other tribes, St. Croix consists of nine separate communities: Balsam Lake, Round Lake, Maple Plain, Bashaw, Sand Lake, Pike Lake, Clam Lake, Gaslyn, and Danbury. The communities are separated at their farthest point by ~60 miles and spread across three different Wisconsin counties. This further complicates the tribe’s acquisition of land, but St. Croix has fiercely overcome challenges in the last two years to expand the land base to build additional housing and allow for the exercise of treaty rights.  

PROMOTING LEADERSHIP: The St. Croix Tribe promotes strong leadership through encouraging higher education and trade school. Additionally, managers in our government or gaming enterprises are required to complete on the job training and/or cross training to further develop their skills.

An example of educational efforts in action at St. Croix is our partnership with Northwood Technical College in Rice Lake, WI. We are currently hosting a welding program where Tribal Members can learn how to weld in the classroom and through hands-on activities. This is done through a mobile welding unit, established through a grant from Governor Tony Evers. The grant fully paid for eight students to take 16 credits and earn their welding certificate. In the future, the St. Croix Tribe can take care of our own welding needs and we have trained eight of our community members to find good paying jobs. 

FUTURE PROJECTS/INITIATIVES: St. Croix has a few important projects in the works for this year. We recently purchased a long-term recovery center in Turtle Lake, WI. The hope for this property is to begin offering culturally appropriate healing and wellness to tribal members experiencing addiction. The Aanji-Bimaadiziwin Healing Center, which translates to He/She Changes His/Her Life, hopes to begin taking clients in fall of 2023. Clients will reside on the property and therapy will be centered around Ojibwe culture. St. Croix understands that addiction is a community issue and is working diligently to help its people.

The tribe is also reconstructing the natural resources building and erecting a sovereignty building for our tribal members to use. Due to mold concerns and structural instability, the natural resources facility had become unsafe. The new building will provide additional office space, allowing for the expansion of programs. A main priority of the tribe is to create opportunities for all St. Croix tribal members to lead self-sufficient and culturally strong lives, while protecting the rights and responsibilities of the St. Croix Chippewa Tribe of Wisconsin as a sovereign nation. St. Croix places a great deal of importance on traditional cultural practices. A critical connection to those practices is protecting the quality of the tribe’s water, land, air, and cultural resources by building/ enhancing the basic infrastructure of a tribal environmental and natural resources program.

New construction of a sovereignty building will support the treaty rights of our St. Croix people. They will be able to utilize it to clean and preserve their harvests. It will also provide a centralized location for storage of the equipment used in exercising treaty rights.

Marlon WhiteEagle, President
Ho-Chunk Nation

Ho-Chunk Gaming, Black River Falls – Black River Falls, WI; Ho-Chunk Gaming, Madison – Madison, WI; Ho-Chunk Gaming, Nekoosa – Nekoosa, WI; Ho-Chunk Gaming, Tomah – Tomah, WI; Ho-Chunk Gaming, Wisconsin Dells – Baraboo, WI; Ho-Chunk Gaming, Wittenberg – Wittenberg, WI

Marlon WhiteEagle

CHALLENGES/REWARDS: I see the challenge of a new presidential administration coming into leadership. There is a lot of turnover during these times. Some good, some bad. In the Ho-Chunk Nation, our president serves dual roles as a political leader on the government side of the house and as a chief executive officer on the enterprise and gaming side of the house.

We, the people of the Ho-Chunk Nation, have been asking our legislative branch to allow a separation of business and government to happen, to no avail. By not complying, our elected official stymies big picture tribal economy. Our business needs to be free to operate like a business and be free from tribal politics.

The rewards I see for the Ho-Chunk Nation this year is new leadership coming into office. The next administration will have an opportunity to make the changes we have asked for. I envision our people rallying to raise their voice against mediocracy.

If we can move closer to separating our business from our government, we have made progress. I believe our people know what they want to see for us in terms of success.

PROMOTING LEADERSHIP: We should be constantly looking to improve our abilities and elevate our business and professional acumen. We have to avoid the tendency to gravitate towards, and try to escape the tribalism mentality. Doing so will help us attract new perspectives, gain positive work culture, and new talent.

More and more, we have built our pool of capable, qualified, and motivated tribal member employees. We have to trust in their abilities and help build their confidence to evolve, lead, and grow.

We offer tribal and veteran preference and educational opportunities to our employees. We hope to foster strong leaders throughout our properties. 

FUTURE PROJECTS/INITIATIVES: We have been approved for off-reservation trust in Beloit, WI. We do not have a reservation proper, or a contiguous tribal land base. However, this nearly 20-year long process is closer to reality.

So much has changed in the 20 years since initial plans were developed. The BIA’s trust process incurs numerous expenses other businesses do not have to deal with. Our Beloit casino project is important, but it should not be at the expense of our other enterprises.

As president, I’ve met with our tribal people and employees at listening sessions and at other events who have said they believe our existing casino facilities should be priority over the allure of a shiny, new casino in Beloit. It serves us best to see our existing casinos capital projects receiving funding, with the end goal of opening a new Beloit casino.