Otto La Pointe always knew he was Native. He knew by the sense of injustice he felt after a nun in his Catholic elementary school told him and his classmates to settle down while riding in a bus.
“Stop acting like a bunch of wild Indians,” the woman said.
He knew from his visits to the Lincoln Indian Center, where his father taught GED classes and served on the board of directors. He knew because his skin was darker than many of his classmates.
“I was aware that I was Native American, but it was never legitimized by something that was on paper,” the 37-year-old structural engineer said.
When he was in high school, La Pointe enrolled in the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, joining a wave of new members of a tribe that for 24 years hadn’t existed in the eyes of the federal government. The federal government had terminated the Ponca in 1966, along with dozens of other tribes as part of a policy of tribal termination meant to force Native people to assimilate into American society.
After the government decided termination had failed, it began restoring tribes, and the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska regained its federal recognition in 1990.
But restoration was just the first step in the Poncas’ efforts to regain what they lost during that nearly quarter of a century, and the tribe has had to redefine itself, including what it means to be a warrior.
While being a warrior once meant defending the village from outsiders, today being a Ponca warrior means something rather different, said Alexcia Boggs, president of the tribe’s economic development company, OSNI Ponca. It means fighting for the tribe through economic development and education, she said.
“We’ve come a long way to be able to fight for survival,” she said.
The Ponca Tribe isn’t the only tribe fighting for its people’s economic welfare. Tribes across the country have begun establishing economic development organizations designed to start businesses that can help sustain tribal members. In Nebraska, the Winnebago Tribe has become a model for other tribes seeking to diversify their economic interests beyond casinos.
While the Winnebagos’ casino, WinnaVegas, provided the catalyst money needed to start its economic development corporation, Ho-Chunk Inc., the corporation has become self-sustaining. It even has begun funding improvements on the tribe’s northeast Nebraska reservation, said Lance Morgan, president and CEO of Ho-Chunk Inc.
With more than 20 subsidiaries, Ho-Chunk Inc. earns nearly $100 million a year in government contracting and even has elicited outrage among larger government contractors that fear the company’s growing portfolio, Morgan said. He said the corporation offers a way for the tribe’s members to get off federal food stamp and welfare programs.
“If you don’t like Indian government contracting, you just don’t like Indians,” he said. “We bring a huge amount of economic activity to rural Nebraska.”
Morgan has shared his knowledge about developing corporations and winning government contracts with more than 100 tribes, he said. One thing he tells other tribes is the importance of establishing some separation between tribal governments and tribal corporations.
“What’s rational to a government official isn’t necessarily rational to a business enterprise,” he said.
He said tribal corporations need to be willing to take greater risks than many tribal government leaders may want to take.
Among the tribes that have benefited from the tribe’s know-how is the Ponca, which established the Ponca Economic Development Corp. (PEDCO) in 2001. This spring, the tribe created OSNI Ponca, a limited liability company, and made PEDCO a subsidiary.
OSNI Ponca has four other subsidiaries, including a tannery business in Niobrara, two smoke shops in Crofton and Carter Lake, Iowa, a convenience store in Bloomfield and a janitorial service based in Lincoln. The tribe’s two smoke shops have provided much of the economic fuel for the other tribal businesses, Boggs said.
OSNI Ponca now employs 25 people, up from just 1.5 employee positions that the company had four years ago.
“We’ve grown dramatically in just a few years,” Boggs said.
The company recently raised eyebrows when it opened a fireworks stand at its office building at 17th and E streets two days before other fireworks stands were allowed by city ordinance to open July 3. As a sovereign nation, the tribe must follow federal, not local or state, laws on its federal trust land, which includes its office buildings.
The Ponca Tribe also is attempting to open a casino in Carter Lake, though it has been stymied by state officials in Iowa who contend the tribe would be violating a promise it made to the state to not open a casino when it established a service area in Carter Lake.
Boggs said the tribe has encountered some resistance in its economic development efforts.
“When tribes do it, it seems like it’s a shock or a surprise,” she said.
La Pointe, who is chairman of OSNI Ponca’s board of directors, said the company enjoys certain benefits, including preference in government contracting and some tax benefits. However, the company also is unable to use tribal land as collateral for loans because that land is held in federal trust, and the tribe has very little tax base to support the company, Boggs said.
“That’s why it’s so important we make smart investments,” she said.
She said her tribe’s economic development efforts could determine its ability to support future tribal members.
“We’re basically here so that our children can have those benefits,” she said.