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Change Ahead on the Red Lake Indian Reservation
By Tom Robertson
October 12, 1998
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The Red Lake Indian Reservation in north central Minnesota has always been physically and culturally isolated. The 800,000 acre reservation, about the size of the state of Rhode Island, is home to a people that have historically been resistant to outside encroachment. But as tribal leaders battle chronic poverty and high unemployment, they are working to find a balance between creating a self-sustaining economy and protecting their cultural identity.

THE RED LAKE OJIBWE PEOPLE have always considered themselves a "nation within a nation." The strongly independent reservation conducts its affairs separate from the rest of Minnesota's Chippewa tribes. It has outlawed alcohol within its borders. And it's one of only two closed reservations in the country - a special status that means all its land is held in common by tribal members. The decision to remain independent has not made it easy to deal with huge economic problems, but tribal leaders lately have been taking a more proactive stance. They're using gaming revenues to diversify their economy and lower an unemployment rate that, at times, reaches 60 percent.

By next spring, this construction site in Redby will become a prefabricated modular-home plant employing 70-plus tribal members. The plant will produce much-needed homes for Red Lake and other reservations. Economic development promoter Quentin Fairbanks says the facility probably could not have been built without casino gambling.

Fairbanks: People are down on gambling and so forth, but actually, it was our way to get up to speed economically. Because we had high unemployment and we're isolated from where jobs are, employment opportunities and so forth, so gaming ... The revenue isn't so important as much as our employment. We're employing a lot of people, and of course that helps generate moneys, and it helps the council do things that they were unable to do before.
Fairbanks returned to the reservation a decade ago after spending most of his working life as an off-reservation businessman. He says increased education of the workforce and enhanced cooperation with the outside world are the keys to growing the Red Lake economy. Fairbanks has been helping the tribal council develop business plans for a number of projects. Among those, a water bottling and ice plant that, in cooperation with Coca-Cola Bottling of Bemidji, will be up and running this spring, and which could eventually employ about 20 people.
Fairbanks: I think what this will do is put Red Lake, make Red Lake be noticed. People will take notice of Red Lake and Coca-Cola, that they have a partnership and an agreement, and other companies may look at this and say, "if Coca-Cola can do it with Red Lake, maybe we can, too." So I'm looking at bringing in other things.
Minnesota's current worker shortage has caused growing interest by outside industries in tapping into Red Lake's workforce. Dave Hengel of the Headwaters Regional Development Commission in Bemidji says Red Lake has a lot of people ready to work.
Hegel: I think they've got great potential, solely due to the fact that they have people right now, and we're hearing a lot from the manufacturers in our area, and I know this is statewide as well, where manufacturers are struggling to get people in the door.
Among the first non-reservation corporations to see potential in Red Lake's workforce was Anderson Fabrics of Blackduck. Efforts are underway at Red Lake for an educational facility in partnership with Anderson, Northwest Technical College, and the tribe. The 1998 Legislature authorized more than $2.5 million in bonding for a training center and a manufacturing plant for Anderson's window-shade division. That project is expected to employ 35 people. Tribal Chairman Bobby Whitefeather says he's optimistic the Red Lake economy is on the upswing.
Whitefeather: The future of the tribe has never been brighter. And I think, as so aptly put in one of our studies, is that we're starting to awaken the sleeping giant called the Red Lake Nation, because the potential, like I say, is limitless. We've got the environment, we've got the advantages of a sovereign government, to be able to create a robust economy here.
From a cultural standpoint, the Red Lake people have used their physical isolation to their advantage. Probably more than any other Minnesota tribe they've resisted outside influences and have clung steadfastly to their Ojibwe language and traditions. But Whitefeather says it may be time to begin taking advantage of an industry they have long-ignored: tourism. Whitefeather says he supports the idea, as long as it doesn't compromise Red Lake's cultural identity.
Whitefeather: The people of a long time ago said that it would not be a good idea to allow the white man onto Red Lake. However, given our record of self-sustainment, it only seems natural to me that we go out there and seek that dollar that these white men have, and have them spend it on our reservation, and we could turn it around in our economy, instead of constantly generating our revenue here, and it goes off the reservation after it turns around only 1.6 times. It's just a matter of economics to me, that it would be a good idea to bring money in.
A new tourist information center is being considered, and Whitefeather says there is also talk of building a new casino and hotel on the shores of Red Lake. Whitefeather says he thinks there's a mystique to Red Lake that would draw outside visitors.
Whitefeather: It's almost like, mysterious, and I think once people come to Red Lake they find that we're the most hospitable in the world. And just because our neighbors off reservation paint a picture that there's just all, law and order does not exist here and there's social chaos, is a total misperception and something that we've suffered because of something that happened here 20 years ago, where there was discord among the tribal government at the time.
Whitefeather says before the tribal council moves forward with plans to develop tourism, there will be a series of community meetings to find out if it's what the people want.