MINNEAPOLIS - Only about 30 percent of 567 tribes in the United States have casinos and only about 20 percent are profitable enough to contribute a lot to their reservation residents, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. And many reservations are still rife with poverty. 

However, the Minneapolis Fed announced Monday that it’s going to boost its effort to help with economic growth among the 45 tribes in its district by launching a Center for Indian Country Development within the bank.

Although the Fed, which is charged by federal law with understanding and promoting economic growth in all parts of the nation, has been working seemingly under the radar with tribes for 25 years, it wants to take the next step by opening the center.

It will serve tribes in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, northwest Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan that are a part of the Minneapolis district, one of 12 nationwide.

The tribal reservations encompass large chunks of the land mass in those states and also as much as 10 percent of the population in some states, said center co-director Patrice Kunesh, in announcing the importance of creating such a center.

It’s an attempt to help areas such as the Standing Rock Indian Reservation that straddles the North Dakota and South Dakota state line has 40 percent of its population living in poverty. It’s even worse on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwest South Dakota with an estimated 95 percent living in poverty and an unemployment rate matching that number.

The difference between the Fed and other agencies trying to help on the reservations, said the other co-director Sue Woodrow, is that the Fed with its work over the years has become a “trusted partner” with many of the tribes and also “in it for the long term.”

“Other organizations might come in and do a project, but then they are out,” Woodrow said. “We have a trusted relationship with our Native partners.”

It’s not that other nonprofit organizations and state and federal agencies aren’t welcome. In fact, some state agencies have been doing “wonderful work with tribes,” Woodrow said.

However, the new center hopes to be “a bridge and a matchmaker,” said Kunesh.

With its rigorous analysis capabilities, the Fed can also bring a “new voice and fresh look” to troubles on the reservation, she said.

The main problems with tribes, the two said in a presentation Monday, are often the lack of credit, educational downfalls, lack of diversification and personal land and home ownership issues.

The center and the Fed can provide more analysis of those problems and is launching an effort with the U.S. Census Bureau to also better track business facts and figures on reservations.

.Some goals, the co-directors said would be to get more credit and lending on reservations, boost economic development, diversify the economies and improve poverty rates.

As an example of what can be done, they pointed to the Lower Brule Indian Reservation in central South Dakota along the Missouri River that has a major agricultural operation, has a popcorn manufacturing plant and grazes cattle in addition to its casino operation.

Tribes offering recreational opportunities is another option, the co-directors said.

The two said they were excited about working with the growing number and expansions of tribal colleges, too, but also working with partners to start improvements from early education and beyond.

“Education is critical,” said Kunesh. She noted that in 2010 only 51 percent of students on the reservations graduated and school infrastructure conditions are “dangerous” for many tribal schools.

“The Federal Reserve System’s partnerships and collaborations with key stakeholders across the country have become critical resources to Indian Country economic development. We are excited about the opportunity to expand the Fed’s work with tribal leaders, government agencies, financial institutions and community organizations to improve education, business development and economic mobility throughout Indian Country,” Kunesh said.

The center will be aided in their work by other Fed departments and will be advised and assisted with strategy and priorities by a newly appointed 10 member center leadership council of regional and national experts in Indian Country development issues.

The 10 members of the Federal Reserve’s Center for Indian Country Development Leadership Council are:

Newsletter signup for email alerts
  • Sarah Vogel, Sarah Vogel Law of Bismarck, N.D.
  • Dante Desiderio, executive director, Native American Finance Officers Association
  • Sarah DeWees, senior director, Research, Policy and Asset- Building Programs, First Nations Development Institute
  • Miriam Jorgensen, director of research, Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management and Policy, University of Arizona, and Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, Harvard University
  • Elsie Meeks, board of directors, Federal Home Loan Bank of Des Moines; chairperson, Lakota Funds
  • Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director, National Congress of American Indians
  • John Phillips, executive director, First Americans Land-Grant Consortium; land grant program director, American Indian Higher Education Consortium
  • Jaime Pinkham, vice president, Native Nations Programs, Bush Foundation
  • Gerald Sherman, vice president, Bar K Management
  • Cris Stainbrook, president, Indian Land Tenure Foundation