Boycott! Crow Creek Sioux Yank Bordertown Business

This article was originally published in two installments in Indian Country Today in 2013.  For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Crow Creek Sioux Tribe's reservation borders the Missouri River in central South Dakota.

Crow Creek Sioux Tribe chairman Brandon Sazue is willing to drive an hour across the rolling central South Dakota grasslands that separate his reservation from Pierre, the state capital, in order to buy sneakers for his kids. He has declared a personal economic boycott of Chamberlain, the reservation border town that’s a half-hour closer.

Chamberlain is where Sazue and other tribal members have long shopped and done business. However, its high school wouldn’t allow a Sioux honor song to be performed during its recent late-May graduation—in spite of a Native enrollment of about one-third of the student body and despite a staff and student petition requesting it. The song was eventually presented, but outdoors across the street rather than inside at the ceremony.

The tall, strapping chairman is still fuming. “Their refusal is ringing in my ears,” Sazue said. Never one to shy away from controversy, in 2009 Sazue, seen here in two photographs, camped on Crow Creek land in the dead of winter in order to prevent its seizure by the IRS and accepted other tribes’ letters of support.

The tribe’s history has been especially painful, and opportunities to celebrate are valued. Fort Thompson, South Dakota, where most of the 3,000-member tribe lives, was originally a prison camp. Most tribal members are descended from Dakotas exiled there from Minnesota after the Dakota–U.S. War of 1862. The journey was so grueling that untold numbers died of starvation and disease, writes Mdewakanton Dakota author Diane Wilson in Beloved Child: A Dakota Way of Life. A Fort Thompson missionary reported that in 1864 most of his students were older children, so many younger ones had died, said Wilson.

Sazue isn’t requiring anyone else to join his boycott, and it’s not known at this time how many have followed his lead, other than the tribe’s Lode Star Casino, in Fort Thompson. The casino’s board of directors voted during the first week of June to begin purchasing goods and services—from beverages to air-conditioner repair—from non-Chamberlain suppliers, Sazue said.

Is the boycott hurting the town of Chamberlain? “No comment,” responded Ashley Chrisinger, who is assistant director of the area’s chamber of commerce. “That’s between the school board and the tribe. We don’t want any part of that.”

Nationwide, researchers have found that Native American funds flow generously to reservation border towns like Chamberlain, counties and states. Even impoverished tribes, like Crow Creek and other South Dakota Sioux reservations—long ranked by the U.S. Census among the very poorest jurisdictions in the nation—contribute mightily. In large part, that’s because many reservations have few, or no, businesses. As a result, people living and/or working on tribal homelands shop in nearby towns, paying whatever taxes are charged along with the price of goods and services, according to a study by Ethel Steinmetz and Thomas O. Skjervold.

In 2011, Nebraska state senator LeRoy J. Louden told the news site that Walmart placed a superstore in Chadron, Nebraska, to take advantage of nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. “That store was built because of the reservation,” Louden said. Whether or not Chamberlain is feeling the boycott, it may be riling up the citizenry. In a letter published May 25 in the local Daily Republic newspaper, area rancher Steve Novotny dismissed Natives as recipients of “cradle to grave” federal payments. The rancher suggested eliminating these as a reverse boycott of Crow Creek. He wrote, “You pull yours, we’ll pull ours. Then we’ll see who’s paying the bills, won’t we?”

On June 11, the nearby Yankton Sioux Tribe’s chairman, Thurman Cournoyer, responded to Novotny’s letter. He reminded Daily Republic readers of the treaties the United States signed with the tribes and noted that the rancher is the beneficiary of (so far) more than $500,000 in federal farm subsidies.

Doing the numbers

Novotny is one of many South Dakotans on the federal dole. The state ranks eighth in the nation for federal subsidies to its agricultural operations, collecting $11.1 billion from 1995 to 2012, according to the Environmental Working Group’s farm subsidy database.

“Pull my subsidies. Go right ahead. I’ll figure out something else, and I’ll still be here,” said Novotny, who volunteered that he is not racist. He added that welfare recipients of any race, along with children of rich people, were “worthless” because they all thought they were entitled to something for nothing.

According to Novotny, “The country simply can’t afford to keep on paying people not to work.” In discussing the conservation subsidies he receives to keep land out of production, Novotny, who owns a hunting outfitter, explained that not working a tract improves its environment and increases wildlife, which in turn benefits hunters.

Another area rancher, Bret Healy, took issue with stances like Novotny’s: “You ought not cast stones at others who are participating in federal programs while you are receiving taxpayers’ dollars to keep land out of production—then charging taxpayers to hunt wildlife on that land.”

Meanwhile, South Dakota is fourth in the nation for dependence on Washington for its state budget, with federal dollars paying the tab for nearly half of everything from health care to law enforcement. It’s a state where individuals and government depend—a lot—on other people’s money. That includes Indian money.

In his book The Rights of Indians and Tribes, attorney Steven Pevar cites several academic research papers on tribes’ shares of their states’ economies. In a 2009 study, for example, economist Steven Peterson determined that five Idaho tribes together contributed nearly a billion dollars in economic activity to the state, while producing nearly $25 million in state and local taxes. Another study Pevar includes in his book found that from 1979 to 2002 Wyoming received $283 million more in taxes from one Indian nation’s mineral production than it returned in services and other funding.

Dr. Malia Villegas, Alutiiq/Sugpiaq and policy research center director of the National Congress of American Indians noted additional studies revealing that tribes and tribal entities are economic engines in California, North Dakota, Oregon and Washington, among others.

Gaming at casinos, such as the Crow Creek’s Lode Star Casino, the Yankton Sioux Tribe’s Fort Randall Casino (shown here) and many others, is the source of much tribal money. The National Indian Gaming Association has published nationwide figures for 2009: $26 billion in gross revenues; $3.2 billion for associated expenditures such as entertainment and lodging; $9.4 billion in federal taxes and other payments; and $2.4 billion for state taxes and other payments. Indian gaming’s job creation was substantial—628,000 jobs for American Indians and others, said NIGA.

In Connecticut, according to Pevar, a 2005 study calculated that tribal casinos created 65,000 jobs and contributed $1 billion to the state budget, while rescuing the deteriorating economy of the southeastern portion of the state.

Casinos are not the only reservation employers; non-Indians as well as Indians work at additional enterprises, tribal departments, nonprofits and schools. The many powwows (powwow dancer seen here) and other Native events generate even more economic activity. The United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota, reckoned in 2011 that its annual powwow had a direct contribution to the local economy of $4.7 million (excluding taxes and other associated impacts). Also that year, Alaska television station KTVA reported that the Alaska Federation of Natives meeting was Anchorage’s biggest convention, bringing in $7.2 million in spending on hotels and more, according to the city’s convention and visitor’s bureau.

We must not forget leasing, said Native American Rights Fund attorney Brett Lee Shelton, who is Oglala Lakota. He noted that farmers, ranchers, mining operations, oil companies and many more individuals and businesses lease Indian land—benefitting from access to tribal resources, as well as from the bargain-basement prices the Bureau of Indian Affairs sometimes charges.

The United States has a long history of valuing Indian resources at below-market rates when it leases or sells those resources to outsiders, according to Shelton. “This is a huge drain on Indian economies and is essentially a taking of resources that hadn’t yet been taken in the treaty-making process. If you wanted to design a system to keep Indian landowners poor, you would use exactly this sort of trick.”

Lawsuits may result. In 2011, Indian owners of 42,000 acres of allotments on the Fort Berthold Reservation, in North Dakota’s Bakken oil-producing region, sued the U.S. government. The allottees alleged that the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is responsible for leasing Indian land in the “best interests” of its owners, approved leases for as little as $110 per acre. The suit charges that the leases were then “flipped” for as much as $10,000 per acre. The lawsuit is still before the courts.

Looking forward

At Crow Creek, the boycott has generated not just short-term controversy but long-term plans, said Sazue. He had threatened to pull the millions the casino generates out of its account at a Chamberlain bank. However, he has left the money in place for now and has decided instead to look into creating a bank in Fort Thompson. “It would be a great convenience for tribal members,” he said.

An on-reservation bank also makes sense in the context of the tribe’s economic development plans, including a wind-power initiative that Crow Creek, five additional Sioux tribes and law firm Arent Fox just announced at the 2013 Clinton Global Initiative America. Then there’s the business incubator and strip mall planned for Fort Thompson by Hunkpati Investments, a U.S. Treasury-certified community development financial institution (CDFI), the chairman said. Sazue would not provide further details about the bank, other than to say it would provide enduring benefits. “It would mean we keep as much of our economy here as possible. It would be very good for us.”

In the meantime, he and others are not giving up the honor song dispute at Chamberlain High School, which garnered interest from Natives nationwide. The influential Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association passed a resolution in favor of having the song at the graduation ceremony, Sazue said. Civil rights leader Oliver Semans, Sicangu Lakota, reports that tribal representatives from as far away as Alaska wrote to the school superintendent to encourage her to allow this tribute to the students.

Said Sazue, “The song is for all students, to honor their accomplishments.”

Text and photographs c. Stephanie Woodard, except photos of 2009 encampment courtesy Crow Creek Sioux Tribe.

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