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Cleaning up the White Earth Reservation
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Each of the White Earth Reservation's five tribal communities will get new welcome signs installed this spring. Shown here are Desirae Stalberger, left, Investment Initiative program assistant, and AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer Sarah Ruppel. (Photo courtesy of Anishinaabeg Today)
The White Earth Indian Reservation in northwest Minnesota has struggled for years with poverty. Unemployment hovers at around 25 percent, well above the national average. The tribe employs some 1,500 people at its casino and in tribal government jobs. But White Earth leaders have had little success in attracting jobs in the private sector. Now, the tribe is getting some help. A Detroit Lakes-based non-profit group is working with White Earth to make the reservation more attractive to new businesses. The group is using some unusual business models to create jobs. The goal is to change White Earth's image.

Bemidji, Minn. — The White Earth Reservation is getting a makeover. Some 350 junk cars have been hauled out of people's yards. Abandoned ramshackle trailers are being removed. Tribal villages are working on plans to create new parks and recreation trails.

Burt Stevens lives in the tiny village of Rice Lake, and belongs to a newly-formed community council. Stevens says a lack of economic opportunity in his community has created a feeling of dispair. There are no jobs in Rice Lake, no stores of any kind.

"Our community ain't hardly got nothing here," said Stevens. "A lot (of residents) were turning out starting alcohol and drugs."

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Image Frank Annette

Stevens says something as simple as removing broken-down cars creates a renewed sense of pride.

"It's more for beautifying our community, because a lot of these cars were wrecked. And most of them couldn't have been fixed anyhow," Stevens said.

The cleanup is a new effort by the White Earth Investment Initiative. The Initiative is a new subsidiary of the Midwest Minnesota Development Corp. in Detroit Lakes. That non-profit economic development corporation has been around more than 30 years. But until now, it hasn't paid much attention to tribal communities.

The White Earth Investment Initiative's mission is to make the reservation more attractive to new businesses.

"This beautification and revitalization of this area is kind of the foundation," said Frank Annette, president of the organization. "In other words, we're trying to create an environment that would be conducive to somebody saying, 'Yeah, I'll invest some money in this area.'"

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Image Bud Heisler

The Initiative is focusing its beautification efforts on five tribal communities on White Earth. Annette has pulled together funding from a lot of sources -- both public and private.

The Initiative is also working on some more novel approaches to revitalization. This spring, the organization will open a used car lot. They'll sell newer-model cars at a discount to people living 200 percent or more below the poverty line. Annette says a lack of reliable transportation is a big obstacle to keeping people employed.

Also this spring, the Initiative will break ground on several convenience stores. Annette says it's a need identified by many tribal villagers.

"We have a number of families living in villages with very little access to some of the amenities that you take for granted in maybe a larger community," said Annette. "Going to get a quart of milk, for example. In some areas, they don't have that. Or buying a gallon of gas."

Annette says the convenience stores will have homes attached to them. The buildings will be located on tribal land, but will be owned by the Initiative. The businesses will be run by tribal entrepreneurs, who will keep the profits.

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Image Sandra St. Claire

The White Earth Tribal Council has been a key partner in the Investment Initiative's efforts. Bud Heisler, tribal secretary treasurer, says he'd be happy with any new jobs on the reservation. But he's setting his sights high.

"We'd like to attract like a Marvin Windows or a Polaris or Arctic Cat or Anderson or someone," said Heisler. "Because we do have a workforce, once we give them jobs that are nice, that they can make a living at."

Tribal members say the Initiative has stirred excitement at the grass roots level. Sandra St. Claire, a member of the community council in the village of White Earth, says reservation communities have been neglected in the past.

"The drugs, the alcohol, the abuse, vandalism -- a lot of things like that happen when you don't have money or other resources allocated to you to build on," St. Claire said. "And with all of these new projects coming onto the reservation, I think it does resurrect that hope. They can see that we are making a change."

The first stage of the White Earth cleanup and revitalization effort will continue through the summer. Welcome signs will be installed in each of the five villages. Trees and shrubs will be planted. Some communities will add parks and street lighting. There are also plans to haul away hundreds more junk cars.

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