MAHNOMEN, Minn. - The recession has not spared the White Earth Reservation, or the 2,000-some tribal employees there, including those that work at the Shooting Star Casino.
In her "State of the Tribe" address Wednesday in Mahnomen, Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor said that the wage freeze implemented over a year ago cannot yet be lifted and may be in effect for another year.
"I wish more than anything to say 'the wage freeze is over,' but I cannot lift the wage freeze until the Tribal Council analyzes casino revenues and program funds over the next several months."
But the tribe will continue to work hard for progress.
"We will build the new Circle of Life School," she said. "We will build new homes, a shelter, convenience store and more. We will improve the lives of our people."
In spite of a 6.5 percent decline in gaming revenues last year, tribal finances are in good shape, with White Earth maintaining an excellent bond rating and "strong credibility in the banking and financial markets," she said.
The tribe has had mixed results in court battles: It prevailed over Mahnomen County regarding the tax-free trust status of the Shooting Star and no longer pay those property taxes.
It is likely headed to federal court to try to recover $10 million that the tribe paid to Gaming World International to manage the casino under former tribal chairman Chip Wadena.
On the bright side, she added, by this time next year, the $32 million debt will be paid off that was used to build the event center and hotel adjoining the casino in Mahnomen.
There are several things cooking on the economic development front:
The tribe has completed 8a certification that will provide preference in landing government contracts. Native Automation Solutions, a tribal partnership, is now competing for federal contracts for services like electronic document management.
Three years ago the Legislature appropriated $300,000 for a feasibility study on biomass ethanol at White Earth. The tribe is now pursuing a biomass pellet plant, Vizenor said.
U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson added $2 million to the Farm Bill to build a state-of-the-art wild rice processing plant in White Earth. A matching grant is required, but Vizenor is seeking a waiver.
"The tribe is now the largest processor of wild rice," she added, "mostly to help our harvesters."
The tribe needs to go into the business large-scale, Vizenor said, while protecting its small processors.
"I told Congressman Peterson that I want White Earth to be the 'Wild Rice Capital' of the world," she said.
In other news, Vizenor announced that the tribe received $4.67 million in grants last year for things like emergency services, chemical dependency treatment, public safety, elderly nutrition, tribal court, day care centers and other projects.
This spring the tribe will break ground on a new K-12 Circle of Life School, a women's shelter, a 750-kilowatt wind turbine and 30 new homes.
It landed $500,000 for home repairs, septic and water systems, and $3 million in tax credits. The elderly will be given priority for home repairs.
E The tribe received $242,000 last week from Venezuela-owned Citgo for heating assistance, the fourth year in a row Citgo has provided such assistance.
E Last year, the tribe opened the New Spirit youth facility in Bemidji, purchased with the help of $2 million in state funds and $2 million from the Mdwaketon Sioux.
It is the "first and only tribally-owned facility in the state that offers culturally appropriate treatment for Indian youth," she said.
The tribe is considering the feasibility of a state proposal to take over the 167-acre Four Winds Treatment facility in Brainerd.
E The White Earth tribal college is fully accredited and has 120 students. It will partner for $3 million in training in renewable energy jobs via the tribe's Pathways out of Poverty grant.
E The tribe approved a new constitution last year and is now moving forward with reform at the Minnesota Chippewa tribal level. White Earth is one of six bands that make up the tribe.