Jackpots, left and right. Brent White Eagle recalls the reopening of Ho-Chunk Gaming Casino in Madison after the epidemic closed more than two months later in 2020.
Each jackpot checked put the former slot division supervisor on his toes because his co-workers adapted to epidemic life. Despite having fewer gamblers, viewers have made even bigger bets that have triggered bigger prizes.
“There were many nights where there was a jackpot outside the walls. It was ongoing for all of our staff, “said White Eagle.
Patrons did not complain, but Ho-chan Nation officials anxiously spotted their economic engine spotter.
Two years later, casino officials say revenue is taking pre-epidemic levels. But the pain of temporary closure is long lasting for the tribe, manifesting in pruning and cutting services. This is forcing tribal leaders to face the over-reliance of their economy on casinos.
“We were hit hard by the epidemic,” said Marlon Whiteeagle, president of Ho-chan, who has no ties to casino officials. “And it raises questions about what we can do to get out of gaming.”
Wisconsin’s 11 federally recognized tribes have long weighed in on how to diversify their economies and illustrate the risk of the epidemic failing to do so.
The Ho-Chank Nation has had little success in its past diversification efforts, has faced leadership turnover, and has faced complacency in gambling earnings since that revenue began to change in the 1980s, tribal officials say.
John Warner, Ho-Chank Gaming Business Development Manager, said: “We are devastated. “We can survive on what we have, and it has become stable.”
Wisconsin Watch interviewed her Siporoke Podcast, which addresses the Ho-Chunk Nation issue. He spoke as a citizen, not in his official capacity.
Warner and others see a promise for the future – whether it’s the development of Ho-chunk land in the federal trust, the opportunity for a federal contract, or the growth of entrepreneurship.
Warner says: “We need to get gaming out of our blood.”
Casinos drive Wisconsin’s tribal economy, generating about $ 1.3 billion annually before the epidemic. But by 2021, wins have fallen by almost a third to $ 893 million.
(Accordingly, the share of net wins under Compact with Wisconsin tribes fell from $ 29.1 million to $ 154,000 between FY 2019 and 2021.)
Gaming revenue mainly finances important infrastructure and government programs such as education, social services and tribal courts. Tribes do not usually earn income, nor do they collect property taxes.
But the epidemic temporarily shocked that system in the spring of 2020.
The three largest gaming tribes in Wisconsin – Forest County Potawatomi, Wanida and Ho-chank – felt the pinch immediately after the Covid-19 business closed. The Potawatomi Hotel and Casino laid off 1,600 employees. And when Vanida Nation reopened its Green Bay Casino after a shutdown, it recalled about half of its 900-strong workforce.
The White Eagle says gaming typically contributes 75 percent of the Ho-chan nation’s revenue, and the epidemic forces about 2,250 Ho-chan employees to lay off.
The White Eagle announced the retrenchment at a YouTube address, pushback and accelerated efforts to remove him from office. White Eagle did not specify how many positions would be restored, but said management was previously “top heavy”, “we had more employees than we worked for them.”
Ryan Grindier, a spokesman for the Ho-chan legislature and a military veteran, said he was saddened to see the Tribal Veterans Service officer fired.
Among others who got the pink slip: Nelson Smith, a wildlife biologist who focused on bees and elk. He now spends his days tanning, working and looking for work, hiding the deer.
Nelson is not sure what the future holds. “Who knows, I might be in my car this summer.”
The White Eagle, a former casino worker, lost his job after taking medical leave and missing a deadline to file papers, he said.
He is looking for a job at Sports Betting – now running at Oneida Casino in Green Bay and a mobile app at a specific Oneida Nation location. Forest County Potawatomi and Wisconsin’s St. Croix Chippewa Indians also recently negotiated a gaming compact with the state to allow on-site sports betting, which is illegal outside of tribal activities in Wisconsin. President White Eagle says sports betting is “on the horizon” for Ho-chan.
It comes as Ho-chank plans to demolish the foundation of a $ 405 million casino complex in Bellevue. This could include a multi-use facility that could be used for education or healthcare if brick-and-mortar casinos become a thing of the past, Grindier says.
Polite start for the casino
Ho-Chunk Nation owns six casinos. The three largest – Black River Falls, Madison and Wisconsin Dells – allow easy access to Wisconsin’s main interstate highways.
That geography is no lucky accident. Long before the U.S. government forced Ho-chunk out of their Wisconsin and Illinois lands – taking them to Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota and later, to Nebraska – Indigenous ancestors walked the path connecting villages and cultural sites that are today Interstate 94.
Ho-chank has no reservations in Wisconsin, but land parcels are in a state of preservation. Instead, Wisconsin’s 5,550 Ho-Chunk citizens are scattered across the state on ancestral or privately owned land.
David Grendier, a Ho-chan citizen and former member of the Indigenous Legislature, recalls the pre-casino years when Ho-chan struggled to maintain basic necessities. In the 1980s, some households lacked running water, he said.
The transition began in the 1980s when the tribe opened a tobacco store from a used trailer near Wisconsin Dells. Then came a bingo hall.
“The money started coming in so fast they didn’t know what to do with it,” Grindier said.
Next Arrival: Casino, thanks to various court decisions in 1987 and the creation of a state lottery in Wisconsin. By 1993, Ho-chank had opened their first casino – in the same place as the original smoke shop.
Casino operations started small before it developed into a large industry.
But Patris Kunesh, a gambler who relies so heavily on an industry, is the founder and former director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis’ Center for Indian Country Development.
With the age of the clients, the long term benefits of casinos are being questioned They face competition from specific online and mobile gambling – including sports betting – and other entertainment.
“Tribesmen are facing a really serious problem here with the concentration of their business,” Kunesh said. “We need a personal economy that can thrive and thrive and not throw your reservations into such chaos and unrest.”
Trying to bring diversity
The White Eagle points to a number of Ho-chank diversification efforts in the past that have become lazy.
In 2003, the tribe launched an abandoned bottled water brand that struggled to enter new markets. That same year, the tribe launched a $ 3 million movie in Tomah that closed during the epidemic.
Similar episodes have been played elsewhere.
After losing money on out-of-state casino projects, Lake Superior Chippewa’s Lac du Flambeu band ventured into pay-as-you-go lending, partnering with outside lenders who sought to avoid state and federal consumer protection regulations.
The operation charged interest rates of up to 400 percent, with critics calling it a predator and trapping the tribe in lawsuits.
Menomini Indian Tribal Congress in Wisconsin tried to enter the flax market after legalizing it for research purposes. But in 2015, federal drug agents destroyed 30,000 menomini cannabis plants – despite shallow evidence that the plants contained illegal levels of the psychoactive ingredient THC.
Nevertheless, the industry can hold promise for flax tribes – just as cannabis should be legal in Wisconsin. Oneida Nation is exploring flax cultivation. Meanwhile, Menomini is building a new sawmill and adding maple syrup production.
Warner says he is jealous of the Nebraska Winabago tribe, who share the lineage with the Wisconsin Ho-chan.
It began to diversify in the 1990s, when the new Iowa Casino tribe threatened to take over the Winavegas casino. The tribe formed an economic development arm, Ho-chank Inc., which encouraged initiatives including construction, real estate development and housing production. The corporation also secures IT and administrative agreements with the federal government – backed by a federal law that gives priority to tribes when bidding.
In 1994, in the first year of its operation, Ho-Chank Inc. raised 400,000 in revenue. This year, it will clear non-gaming revenue of $ 370 million, said Lance Morgan, president and CEO of Ho-Chank Inc.
Spirit powered barbecue
In Wisconsin, Warner says Ho-chan should encourage citizens’ entrepreneurial spirit.
Darren Price has that consciousness. For more than 22 years, Price and his Ho-chank family have built and expanded the BP Smokehouse in Tomah – back in 2000 with a ব্যবসা 10,000 small business grant from the Ho-chan legislature.
Price, a former state patrol trooper, has improved on the competitive barbecue circuit. The business grew as sponsors returned.
“It can be lonely at times,” he says, recalling waking up before dawn to prepare meat. “But you have to have that dream and that vision, you have to nurture it. Because it’s yours. “
The name BP Smokehouse is derived from the combined initials of Price and Blackdier, the first name of his wife Myra Joe. The couple just opened a second location, a kiosk at the Nekosar Ho-chank Casino.
The Ho-chan government has abandoned the BP Smokehouse’s introductory loan program, but the White Eagle says the tribe aims to relaunch a similar program.
Looking to the future
Tribes should use federal epidemic relief for long-term economic or education investments, Kunesh said. But some – including Ho-chank – have instead sent direct payments to citizens, which he called “more than a political calculation.”
Meanwhile, Kunesh says the tribes are reducing their biggest asset: land use. A Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs Trust covers more than 60 million acres.
The bureau has historically controlled land use, requiring sign-offs for activities such as oil drilling, agriculture or real estate. But a 2012 federal law allows tribes to create their own leasing regulations.
With 6,633 acres of trust land, the Ho-Chank Nation Trust in Wisconsin has become a preliminary case study for efficient management of land – creating an office to handle lease agreements.
The White Eagle says it could pay off in the coming years.
Warner says indigenous peoples need to “build each other up” and invest in the future.
“We’re a really strong, powerful tribe,” he says, “and we’ve forgotten that.”
Frank Vicevillas, Native American Reporter Green Bay Press-GazetteContribute to this report.
The story is part of a collaborative series, “At the Crossroads” by the Institute for Nonprofit News, Indian Country Today, Wisconsin Watch and eight other news partners, which examine the state of the Indian economy. This report was made possible with the help of the Walton Family Foundation.