LaDuke: We need an economy based on our wealth, not our deprivation
In the time of my parents, we would set up ricing camp at Star Lake. We traveled from the south to the north, following the wild rice as it ripened. In my generation, I remember tribal member Gordon Henry getting arrested for ricing on Star Lake, accused of " poaching" manoomin. Discouraged for years by risk of fines and imprisonment, I am forever grateful to our people for their courage. Harvesting our traditional foods is how we survived and how we will survive.
Today, we are again faced with challenges. Our tribal economy and way of life has become impoverished as our trees, wild rice, deer, fish and our natural world is encroached upon and poisoned by the ways of the Wasichu and the state of Minnesota. A heroin and methamphetamine epidemic threatens a poverty of spirit. We watch as our relatives, who have battled every form of colonialism and oppression, self medicate in times of despair.
I am reluctant to divide with the White Earth Tribal Council; but in this case, I must say, that a casino at Star Lake will not heal us. Our answers and wealth are here, omaa akiing on this reservation. The federal government, even before President Trump, has a real disdain for justice. To me, justice is the return of land. A third of our reservation was stolen by the federal, state and county governments. Justice is the return of the northern half of the Tamarac Wildlife Refuge, the return of our ancestors' bones, restoration of our language, and fair trade for our wild rice and maple syrup. We need an economy based on our wealth, not our deprivation.
Instead of justice, we have been told as Native people that we can have a casino for economic development, a nuclear waste dump or a pipeline.
The Star Lake Casino, with an estimated $120 million investment at the outset, is a risky venture and does not truly build a tribal economy. Leveraging substantial long term debt for a tribe with limited resources should not be the right of one tribal council. The investment of $7 million or more in feasibility studies would have been better spent addressing fuel poverty and local food economies.
Historically, tribal gaming revenues have dwarfed treaty-guaranteed federal allocations to our people. According to the 2014 Congressional hearings on gaming,"... Our Bureau of Indian Affairs budget is about $2.5 billion and Indian gaming revenues are about $28 billion... our budget is less than 10 percent of what comes in through Indian gaming. In fact, gaming revenues eclipse by a large measure all the federal revenues toward Indian tribes...."
To be clear, I understand how some members of the tribal council believe this is the answer. Yet, at the same time, we are over-leveraging and not building a local economy. Several tribes have severely damaged their economies and reputations by overleveraging their gaming facilities. In cases like La Posta, the casino went out of business and left hundreds of people without work. In others like the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, tribal governments are continuing to pay off a credit card with another credit card when they refinance their loans with new loans when they come due. The White Earth Nation must avoid becoming caught in a cycle of debt due to reliance on outside consultants who encourage overdevelopment but don't suffer if it fails.
Many opportunities exist for our tribe, but they must be actualized through cooperation and innovation. Casinos are a means to an end, and not an end unto themselves.
In honor of those arrested at Star Lake, let us harvest our wild rice, take care of our land and build a sustainable economy. I want to ensure that the manoomin of our ancestors is here for our descendants, not a seat at a slot machine.
LaDuke is executive director, Honor the Earth, and an Ojibwe writer and economist on Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation.