Tribal Leader Roundtable: Spotlight on 2023 Momentum

This month, we spoke with five tribal leaders from across Indian Country about the greatest challenges and rewards this year, how strong leadership is promoted, and some of their most important initiatives moving forward. Here is what they had to say…

Russell “Buster” Attebery, Chairman
Karuk Tribe

Rain Rock Casino – Yreka, CA

Russell Buster Attebery
Russell “Buster” Attebery

CHALLENGES/REWARDS: The Karuk Tribe is located in the northern part of California, just below the Oregon border. Our ancestral landholdings are anchored by the Klamath River and its tributaries, surrounded by forests and mountains. The Karuk people are continually challenged with wildfires, river pollution and dewatering of our tributaries. We believe that tribal management is necessary to create a collaborative structure that recognizes Tribal Ecological Knowledge (TEK). The development of co-management agreements that acknowledges tribal sovereignty and self-governance is imperative. Moreover, we assert the TEK be used in the maintenance of forest lands and waterways. The Karuk people have served as excellent stewards of the land since time immemorial. Meaningful consultation with tribes whenever there are proposed projects in Indian Country has been helpful.  

PROMOTING LEADERSHIP: Leading by example is first and foremost. Being there for your tribal membership. I have an open-door policy and return all calls. Tribal members need to know their thoughts and suggestions will be considered. Communicate early and often with your management team. Develop a policy that reflects a proper chain of command so all employees, upper-level to entry-level, feel they were involved in the solution. I come from a coaching background and if you do not properly and continually train and coach your employees, more than likely, they will experience many stressful situations.

FUTURE PROJECTS/INITIATIVES: The Karuk Tribe has been on the forefront with the Klamath Dam Removal Project. This is a very important project because the Klamath River is the lifeblood for the Karuk people and the salmon have been the main food source for the Karuk people for centuries. Removal of these dams will free up over 400 miles of spawning grounds for our salmon while dramatically improving water quality. We are currently building a new health clinic and a new dental clinic. Solar units have recently been installed at our casino site and on our housing units. We opened Rain Rock Casino in Yreka, CA, in 2018. We are currently building a hotel, convention center, and expanding our gaming floor. The Karuk Tribe was awarded funding to bring internet and phone services (Áan Chúuphan) to our rural communities. This is the first time our elders and youth will have the opportunity to be provided with sufficient internet access. This will allow them to receive higher education options, specialty healthcare and connection to outside resources.

Theresa Jackson, Chief
Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe

Saganing Eagles Landing Casino & Hotel – Standish, MI; Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort – Mount Pleasant, MI

Theresa Jackson
Theresa Jackson

CHALLENGES/REWARDS: The pandemic has left a tremendous gap in employment within our region. I know this is not only a state issue, but a trend that is being felt by many throughout the U.S. As we continue to find creative ways to recruit and retain employees, we identify partners and rely on collaborative efforts to meet this demand. Another opportunity for growth is to assist in having access to affordable housing within our region. With the continued rise of inflation, access to housing becomes an issue for many in our community. Many young families struggle to find adequate and affordable housing locally. Finally, we have identified the need to address aging infrastructure within our community. As we continue to look at growth and potential expansion, we remain aware of the need to update and/or replace the aging infrastructure that plays a crucial role in providing key services to our community and gaming properties.

Rewards for our tribe this year include projects that offer key resources to all in our communities. Three rewarding projects include the renovation and opening of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College, the groundbreaking of a new K-5 academy and recreation center for our youth and a 16-plex permanent supportive housing complex. Each of these are unique but offer support in various ways to so many in our community.

PROMOTING LEADERSHIP: We have continued to place an emphasis on education and access to skill development for our team members. We accomplish this using our internal training department that offers an array of industry-leading trainings and workshops. We remain committed to offering team members educational leave to complete their educational journeys as well. Additionally, we have leadership and apprenticeship programs that help our community members acquire the skills necessary to become the leaders of tomorrow.

FUTURE PROJECTS/INITIATIVES: Completing the above-mentioned projects remains a priority for this administration. As we look toward the future, we continue to place an emphasis on education. We broke ground last fall on our K-5 Saginaw Chippewa Academy/Recreation Center and are hopeful to open the doors in the fall of 2024. Here, our students have the opportunity to excel in academics while also being immersed in our culture daily. Offering a next step after high school is vitally important for our young adults and having access to a first-class facility is now readily available in our community. With the new Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College, many of the young adults can take the next step in their journey in developing the skills and acquiring the knowledge they need to assist in becoming leaders within the tribe for generations to come.

Kenneth Kahn, Chairman
Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians

Chumash Casino Resort – Santa Ynez, CA

Kenneth Kahn
Kenneth Kahn

CHALLENGES/REWARDS: In today’s climate, we all face the challenge of being mindful of the environment and doing what we can in our business practices to reduce our footprint. This year, it’s been rewarding to be recognized for our conservation efforts by earning LEED Silver Certification for our Santa Ynez Chumash Museum and Cultural Center, which will open later this year. Our environmentally sound design, construction and operational practices qualified us for the distinction from the U.S. Green Building Council. As the original stewards of the land, our tribe is proud to achieve LEED Silver and become one of just two Native American museums in the U.S. that have achieved that distinction. In July, Santa Barbara County also named our Chumash Casino Resort a “Green Innovator” for diverting more than 90 percent of our waste stream from local landfills through recycling programs and community partnerships.

PROMOTING LEADERSHIP: Our CEO, John Elliott, has made leadership development a priority, devoting time and resources to help polish our leaders and build a thriving business culture. We invest in training and development for our team members and have an extensive executive leadership training program, with measurement using 360-degree feedback from supervisors, peers and subordinates. The program, called The Leadership Challenge, assesses an individual’s leadership skills against five leadership practices: Inspire a Shared Vision, Model the Way, Encourage the Heart, Challenge the Process, and Enable Others to Act. All our team members are trained continuously on our organization’s core values of respect, accountability, integrity, customer care and continuous improvement, and we measure their performance against those values. Our leadership team also receives yearly performance appraisals based on a SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, relevant and timely) goal-setting framework. All of this helps us remain competitive and maintain a positive work experience for our team members through quality leadership practices.

FUTURE PROJECTS/INITIATIVES: Our most important upcoming project will be our Santa Ynez Chumash Museum and Cultural Center, which is slated to open later this year. This has been a project in the making since the 1970’s, when a traditional ‘Ap (a dome-shaped dwelling made with tule reeds) was erected on our reservation to showcase significant cultural objects. That was the start of our tribe’s collective dream – to one day have a museum dedicated to our history and our heritage that would inform the local community and visitors from afar about the first people of our area. Fifty years later, we are proudly in the final stages of completing the 14,000 sq. ft. facility and its 3.5-acre park. The museum will showcase portions of our tribe’s collection of over 20,000 cultural objects, offer educational programs and share the history and culture of our tribe through the stories and traditions that were passed down from our ancestors. We are eagerly anticipating the day when we open those doors for the first time.

Reid D. Milanovich, Chairman
Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians

Agua Caliente Casino Cathedral City – Cathedral City, CA; Agua Caliente Casino Palm Springs – Palm Springs, CA; Agua Caliente Resort Casino Spa Rancho Mirage – Rancho Mirage, CA

Reid Milanovich
Reid Milanovich

CHALLENGES/REWARDS: President Biden signed into law a series of bills to restore tribal stewardship of sacred lands and ensure that federal land management laws respect tribal sovereignty. The Agua Caliente Land Exchange Fee to Trust Confirmation Act will put more that 2,500 acres of land in the San Jacinto Mountains into trust for the Agua Caliente Tribe to further conservation efforts and practice consistent forest management. According to U.S. Rep. Dr. Raul Ruiz, who wrote and championed the House bill, “This legislation fulfills an agreement between the federal government and the tribe and will bolster conservation of local lands, help protect our environment, and honor the federal government’s trust responsibility to tribal nations.”

PROMOTING LEADERSHIP: From the 1800’s through today, the Agua Caliente leadership signifies the trajectory of a thriving and prosperous tribal government. Since 1955, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has elected tribal members to oversee governmental affairs and economic ventures. It is this legacy of leadership that inspires us to aim for excellence in everything we do. Our Agua Caliente Casinos properties in Cathedral City, Palm Springs, and Rancho Mirage, where Agua Caliente Fuel is also located, exemplify the best-in-class that our business operations leadership bring to the table 24/7/365. Agua Caliente Resort Casino Spa Rancho Mirage is the only property in California that has been awarded the Forbes Four-Star rating for three different locations within the resort hotel with its Sunstone Spa earning the Forbes Five-Star award consecutively since 2021.

FUTURE PROJECTS/INITIATIVES: Sharing our culture is a priority for the Agua Caliente Tribe. This year, we have a new venue to support this: the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza, a 5.8-acre complex featuring the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum and education garden, opening later this year, and our newly opened The Spa at Séc-he, a state-of-the-art spa fed by the sacred 12,000-year-old waters of the Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Spring. They are joined by the Gathering Plaza and Oasis Trail that capture the essence of the Indian Canyons and Tahquitz Canyon, our ancestral homeland. The cultural plaza is one of the most important achievements in our tribe’s history. It allows us to share and celebrate our culture and educate visitors about our history and who we are as a people. For us, it’s a dream come true that has been in the making for more than 30 years. When we share our culture, we preserve our culture.

Marshall Pierite, Chairman
Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana

Paragon Casino Resort – Marksville, LA

Marshall Pierite
Marshall Pierite

CHALLENGES/REWARDS: As far as challenges go, we are experiencing staffing issues much like other companies throughout America. Despite the challenges, we continue to put our best foot forward and offer the best guest service experience possible through our front-line associates who always make it a point to go above and beyond for all guests. A major win for our tribe this year is how much we have been able to invest back into our employees. We have created opportunities for growth via work training, which is paying off significantly as we are seeing higher levels of performance execution. Additionally, we are working together to help them obtain a living wage instead of just a minimum wage.

PROMOTING LEADERSHIP: By having a collective vision and being inclusive at every level of leadership, we can promote strong leaders quickly and support positive leadership traits throughout our property. We also encourage employees on all levels to listen to and ask for guest feedback that can then be used to create goals centered around creating the best guest experience possible. Our leadership teams use these strategies to create a strong and supportive work environment that puts the employees’ voices at the center of all that we do in order to encourage all of our departments to work together in unity rather than to work in silos. Teamwork makes the dream work and that’s definitely the case here.

FUTURE PROJECTS/INITIATIVES: One of our main priorities is beautifying the entire Paragon Casino Resort property. Our South Tower hotel renovation is part of the first phase of this project, and we cannot wait to unveil the finished product. We also continue to invest back into our facility infrastructure and technology. Even though we are a 29-year-old property (and the first land-based casino in Louisiana), we work hard to keep our property current and relevant for our guests and our associates. An example of using technology to create conveniences for our guests is we now have to-go kiosks at both Roxy’s Diner and the Draft Room sports bar where guests can place to-go orders. We are also working on a mobile app where guests will be able to access their accounts, offers, and other important information on their digital devices.