Tribal Leader Roundtable: Spotlight on Growth and Development


This month, we spoke with four tribal leaders from across Indian Country about the greatest risks, challenges and rewards for 2023, how strong leadership is promoted, and some of their most important initiatives moving forward. Here is what they had to say…

Melvin J. Baker, Chairman
Southern Ute Indian Tribe

Sky Ute Casino Resort – Ignacio, CO

Melvin Baker
Melvin J. Baker

CHALLENGES/REWARDS: The Southern Ute Indian Tribe is looking forward to the summer season as we welcome visitors to the Sky Ute Casino Resort. Located in the southwest corner of Colorado, our reservation hosts many outdoor recreational activities as well gaming, fine dining, and bowling.

The tribe is in the process of navigating through the nationwide labor shortage. Due to staffing shortages, operations within Sky Ute have been impacted. Leadership has reduced hours of operations on the gaming floor and restaurants. Shortages have limited the resort on room capacity and reservations in order to maintain a high level of service. However, the players club tiers have been redesigned with the intention of offering a more appealing loyalty program that contains benefits that attract, not only our established clientele, but will also be attractive to new customers. Sky Ute Casino Resort continues to develop new player promotions, introduce new games, incentivize players club membership with giveaways, and serve as a choice venue for events. Starting in June, staff and leadership welcomed summer youth employees who are eager to learn about the tourism and hospitality industry.

PROMOTING LEADERSHIP: The Sky Ute Casino Resort leadership team is committed to creating a workplace where everyone feels valued, respected, and supported. They are also dedicated to providing exceptional service to their guests. By upholding these values, the leadership team is creating a culture that is conducive to success. Due to shortages of staff, directors and managers have joined the staff to share the workload and lessen the need for overtime. Leadership regularly engages in management training to ensure best practices are in place.  

FUTURE PROJECTS/INITIATIVES: The Southern Ute Indian Tribe and its entities are resilient and adaptable. Under strong leadership from the Tribal Council, Sky Ute Casino Resort will continue to operate and provide quality entertainment. In coordination with best practices for talent recruitment, Sky Ute Casino Resort holds job fairs, advertises positions available, and offers sign-on bonuses. Staff is encouraged to cross-train in other roles to increase their skills and knowledge, and to be better prepared for future opportunities.

Kevin DuPuis Sr., Tribal Chairperson
Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa

Black Bear Casino Resort – Carlton, MN; Fond-du-Luth Casino – Duluth, MN

Kevin Dupuis
Kevin DuPuis, Sr.

CHALLENGES/REWARDS: We must worry about the infringement of our sovereignty and our borders. Our treatied land diminished to approximately 20 percent of original treaty lands for the Fond du Lac Band. We have to look at what’s been good and bad with the treaty and trust responsibilities.

The good is that our people are still here, and that we are still striving to make things better for tomorrow so that we have a future for our unborn and can retain identity and look out for the Seven Generations. It is most important that we have that identity of who we are as a people.

PROMOTING LEADERSHIP: A leadership principle here at the Band is to follow by example. As Tribal Chairperson, I try to do the best that I can in my leadership position. If somebody is going to be representing the Band, they usually ask, ‘What are the things I need to be most aware of?’ I tell them, ‘The three S’s – sovereignty, sovereignty, sovereignty.’

For our Band, the nucleus is our language and culture departments, surrounded by our natural resources department, as a collective. Some of the areas we focus on are initiating projects and challenging our people so that we can ensure they are educated and develop leadership traits and responsibilities. We want to empower our youth – they are our future leaders, and we want to ensure they understand the principles of sovereignty and our treaty rights guaranteed to us under the trust and treaty responsibilities of the United States. We empower them with the principles of who we are as a people, because we have an obligation to the past in order to ensure that we have a future for our unborn. 

FUTURE PROJECTS/INITIATIVES: A priority for us is getting land back that was taken through the process of manipulation and theft for a few hundred years. One of these pieces of land exists within the confines of the reservation and is being utilized by the University of Minnesota as a forestry center. That’s in the middle of our reservation and we haven’t been able to reside on it for many, many years.

Economic stability is a daily focus. Many tribes are so-called powerhouses, providing economic stability within their region, local municipalities and counties. That is one of our biggest goals, as well as to understand what is out there in front of us. Tribes are hardly ever worded in legislation, but now, things are changing and tribes need to be ready to go through those doors. Economic diversity and stability are key, as well as protecting our natural resources.

Jamie Stuck, Chairman
Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi

FireKeepers Casino Hotel – Battle Creek, MI

Jamie Stuck
Jamie Stuck

CHALLENGES/REWARDS: Much like the majority of businesses in the hospitality industry, macroeconomic conditions will be playing a significant factor in operations this year. Staffing, inflation, and supply chain challenges have carried over year to year. The management and staff at FireKeepers consistently overcome these challenges with enthusiasm and continue to deliver the same excellent guest service our guests have come to expect.

The end of 2022 produced much momentum for FireKeepers. We announced a new CEO, Frank Tecumseh (a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation); promoted Bryant Phillips, one of our own tribal members, to Vice President of Human Resources; received multiple awards, including Forbes Employer of the Year and AAA Four Diamond hotel and restaurant honors; and set multiple business records. I do not doubt that the team will continue building upon that momentum throughout 2023.

PROMOTING LEADERSHIP: The Seven Grandfather Teachings, along with our five-year strategic plan, serve as guideposts in our vision and mission. Being in compliance with these principles is the foundation that leads our employees and members. Prioritizing sovereignty, culture, health and healing, financial wellness, and organizational excellence ensures the emotional, physical, and financial well-being of our tribal community for the next Seven Generations. 

FUTURE PROJECTS/INITIATIVES: We have several exciting projects and initiatives coming up this year. Extensive planning for the 2023 Annual Gathering of Potawatomi Nations is underway. We’re honored to host the annual event this year and have been working diligently to ensure we develop a week-long agenda of activities rich with culture, connection, education and fun. Construction has begun on a new housing development on the Pine Creek Reservation and a new food and beverage outlet at FireKeepers.

We will soon be announcing the recipients of the Native American Heritage Fund, which promotes positive relationships and accurate information about the history and role of Michigan’s Indian tribes and Native Americans in the State of Michigan. Building upon our food sovereignty initiative, we help feed tribal members and neighbors in need within the surrounding communities. Waséyabek, our economic development company, is working to diversify revenue streams beyond gaming, as well as creating dividends in revenue and assets and expanding career development.

We are also lobbying on all levels for initiatives surrounding the Indian Child Welfare Act to achieve a tribal nation free from violence, to end the epidemic of violence committed against Indigenous people by standing in solidarity for Missing and Murdered Indigenous People, and uniting all Michigan tribes in opposition of the Enbridge pipeline tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac.

Isaiah Vivanco, Chairman
Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians

Soboba Casino Resort – San Jacinto, CA

Isaiah Vivanco
Isaiah Vivanco

CHALLENGES/REWARDS: We are located in California and are still trying to go through the compacting process for our gaming facility. It’s been a lengthy process with the state. It’s gotten to the point where we had to sue the governor for bad faith negotiations, which is in the court system process now.

Some of the rewards? We’ve been mindful of expanding our economic development footprint and have opened a new gas station c-store this year. Also, we are looking to open a 14,000 sq. ft. retail center at the end of this year, which is about a mile from our gaming facility.

On June 10th of this past year, we celebrated the one-year anniversary of Legacy Bank. That has been a huge step for the tribe. It’s something that we worked on for about five years. It is a 100 percent tribally owned bank, owned by us, Soboba. It is the 17th or 18th tribally owned bank to open in the U.S., and the first to open on the west side of Colorado in many, many years. We are excited about that. We’ve been reaching out to a lot of tribes to get them interested in our services. We have a lot to offer and continue to move forward every chance we get to promote the bank in hopes of serving tribes and growing Legacy Bank.

PROMOTING LEADERSHIP: Our tribal council is heavily involved with our team members – from high-level to entry-level positions. We employ around 1,500 team members at our gaming facility, and about 350 team members at our government center. This amounts to about 1,850 employees. We have quarterly awards ceremonies and make sure that our team members get the recognition they deserve, because if it wasn’t for them, where would we be? They are part of the Soboba family. 

FUTURE PROJECTS/INITIATIVES: We are continuing an effort to capitalize on all the monies that are available in Indian Country. We are looking at providing wastewater services to our reservation, which would enhance our ability to grow with much needed housing. We are looking at state, federal, and local grants to help offset the cost of that.

We will break ground shortly on an $8.5 million microgrid project that will offset our growing costs for energy for the next 20 years. We’ve done that with grant and monies from the State of California, as well as tax initiatives. We continue to progress and move forward, looking at any options available to the tribe to enhance our living situation and build our infrastructure. The key for us is making sure we can meet the needs of a growing tribe.