Washington and North Dakota tribes join Promise Zone program

Members of the Spokane Tribe in Washington. Photo from STEP - Spokane Tribe Economic Project / Facebook

Two more tribes have joined the federal Promise Zone program in an effort to improve opportunities in their communities.

The Spokane Tribe of Washington and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in North Dakota are part of the third and final round of an initiative that President Barack Obama launched in 2014. The two tribes will work closely with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies to address economic development, employment and other needs on their reservations and trust lands.

"We believe that a ZIP code should never limit the hopes that families have for themselves or for their children," HUD Secretary Julian Castro said on a conference call with reporters on Monday.

"This effort is all inclusive," added USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. "The President was insistent on making sure that rural and tribal areas receive attention from the Promise Zone effort."

According to the White House, nearly one-third of the Spokane Tribe is suffering from poverty and 25 percent lack steady employment. The Promise Zone will help the tribe create jobs through investments in renewable energy, housing construction and technology centers. The tribe also plans to reduce crime by updating its law and order code and by implementing a community policing strategy, the White House said.

Leaders of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Photo by TMBCI

The designation applies to the tribe's main reservation and to its trust lands in Airway Heights, where a controversial off-reservation casino is being proposed. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has approved the project but the final decision rests with Gov. Jay Inslee (D).

This month incidentally marks the one-year deadline for Inslee to make a decision under the two-part determination provisions of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Although he could ask for an extension, he has faced intense pressure not just from the Spokane Tribe but from the Kalispel Tribe, whose Northern Quest Resort and Casino is less than three miles away and whose leaders oppose the new development.

Additional pressure will come with the arrival of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who oversees the BIA, to the state later this week. She's due to visit the reservation on Thursday as part of the new designation.

"We face staggering social, health and environmental problems as historic sources of tribal revenue no longer exist, are in decline, and are near flatlining," Spokane Chairwoman Carol Evans wrote in The Spokesman Review last December.

The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians plans to tackle equally significant issues -- according to the White House, nearly 39 percent of the tribe suffers from poverty. The Promise Zone designation focuses on improving affordable housing, helping small businesses, expanding educational opportunities, expanding energy infrastructure and developing a regional food hub for agricultural production.

The announcement represents a measure of progress. In 2015, the tribe was one of the finalists for the program but was not selected.

Nick Tilson, Executive Director of Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, and Lenny Lone Hill, Construction Trainer at Thunder Valley, assist Oglala Sioux youth in breaking ground on a housing and retail project on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Photo from Thunder Valley CDC / Facebook

The designation is also unique in that it includes the Fort Totten Reservation, the home of the Spirit Lake Nation. The Turtle Mountain Band will serve as the lead organization for the effort.

That year, the Pine Ridge Reservation, home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe, joined the program and was the second Indian Country representative. The Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation is the lead agency on the effort and Vilsack said the Promise Zone designation has helped expand access to high-speed internet on the reservation and has led to the establishment of more agricultural businesses.

The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma has been the beneficiary of $60 million in investments since the first Promise Zone announcement in January 2014. Obama visited the reservation in July 2015 and touted the program's achievements.

"You’ve already received federal investments in Early Head Start, to make sure our young people are getting the best possible beginning in life; child care, job training, support for young entrepreneurs," Obama said in Durant on July 15, 2015.

President Barack Obama speaks to the Choctaw Nation in Durant, Oklahoma, on July 15, 2015. Photo by Choctaw Nation / Facebook

In addition to improving access to high-speed internet, the funding has supported a wide range of projects in a 10-county area in the southeastern part of the state. There's a new health clinic in Boswell, a 100,000 square-foot medical campus under construction in Durant and health, education, economic development, workforce training and other programs.

Although additional communities won't be joining the Promise Zone program for now, each designation lasts 10 years. Barring changes in regulations or laws, the tribes should be able to tap into the federal support network well into the next presidential administration.

"It does give these areas a leg up," Secretary Vilsack said on the call.

Also Today:
Barack Obama: Real Change Starts from the Ground Up (Medium 6/6)

Spokane Tribe Off-Reservation Casino Documents:
BIA Two-Part Determination Letter (June 15, 2015)

Federal Register Notice:
Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Proposed Spokane Tribe of Indians West Plains Casino and Mixed Use Project, City of Airway Heights, Spokane County, WA (February 1, 2013)

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