Nebraska State Sen. Tom Brewer (R), an Oglala Sioux tribal citizen, speaks at the State Capitol in Lincoln on March 13, 2018, at a legislative luncheon where Winnebago tribal leaders talked about community development projects taking place on their reservation. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Indian lawmaker welcomes tribal delegation to Nebraska Capitol

'We’re a model of what we can do when we work together'

Winnebago Tribe educates state lawmakers
By Kevin Abourezk

LINCOLN, Nebraska -- A delegation of Winnebago tribal and business leaders traveled to the State Capitol on Tuesday to educate legislators about the economic renaissance taking place on their northeast Nebraska reservation.

The delegation, which included tribal Chairman Frank White, Councilman Jim Snow and Ho-Chunk Inc. CEO Lance Morgan, attended a luncheon for state senators hosted by Tom Brewer, the state’s first Native American lawmaker. Brewer, a Republican, is a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

White spoke about the Winnebago Tribe’s efforts to take over control of the Indian Health Service hospital on its reservation. The tribe hopes to complete the takeover by July 1, and White invited the state senators to events planned in his community that day to celebrate the takeover.

“It’s very, very important for the welfare of our membership,” he said of the hospital takeover.

Snow said he hopes the state and the tribe can work together to improve the lives of their people.

“We’re a model of what we can do when we work together,” he said.

Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: Winnebago Tribe at the Nebraska Capitol

Brewer talked about improvements in Whiteclay, where beer stores once sold as many as 4 million cans of beer a year until a state liquor regulatory agency shut down those stores last April. He said a lot of non-Native residents in that region of Nebraska were upset by the state’s decision to shut down the beer stores, but many of those detractors are now coming around.

“What’s happened since then is they’ve seen a town that was really a very dark spot in the history of Nebraska turn into just a little town,” he said.

Brewer credited Morgan with helping lift much of his community of Winnebago out of poverty and bringing economic development to his reservation.

“I wish we could clone him,” Brewer said. “I wish we could put him on every reservation.”

Morgan talked about the need for state leaders to leave his people alone as they set out to create economic development for themselves. He said his daughter once tried to tell him a story that started out, “Once upon a time …”

“I said, ‘Stop, you are a Native American. That is not how Indians start stories,’” he said. “‘Every Indian story since Plymouth Rock starts exactly the same. It starts off with, There I was just minding my own business.’”

Lance Morgan, CEO of Ho-Chunk Inc., speaks at a legislative luncheon at the State Capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska, on March 13, 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

The story was perhaps Morgan’s way of indirectly referencing a January 30 raid by agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Those agents confiscated cigarettes, boxes of documents and two vehicles.

White has said he believes the raid was influenced by the state of Nebraska to investigate Ho-Chunk and its Rock River Manufacturing subsidiary to help the state gain advantage in a tax dispute.

The raid also took place as the tribe’s attorneys were fighting the U.S. Department of Justice over whether the Winnebago Tribe is required to provide its tobacco sales records to the federal government.

The tribe is scheduled to present its appeal in the case Thursday before the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.

“Any scenario that you’re going to deal with from us, we’re going to come in complaining because there we were just minding our own business and somebody just came in and took something,” Morgan said.

Winnebago chairman Frank White, center left, and tribal council member Jim Snow, center right, speak with lobbyists and state senators at a legislative luncheon hosted at the State Capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska, on March 13, 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

He said the tribe has had to build nearly every aspect of its economy from the ground up in order to give its members the same economic opportunities that those living off reservations routinely enjoy.

He said Ho-Chunk Inc. has been a major part of that effort, providing millions in economic revenue each year to the tribe and employing 1,200 people around the globe, including 200 on the reservation alone.

Nearly a third of the tribe’s taxes that it collects from cigarette sales – or the “the tobacco tax that causes us trouble sometimes,” as he put it wrly – is put into a community development fund that has provided matching grants to more than 30 community improvement projects, he said.

“We’re trying to kick start what everybody takes for granted in this country on our reservation,” he said.

The tribe provides mortgage down payment assistance, to the tune of up to $65,000 per home buyer, to its tribal members and has provided $2.3 million in such assistance to 52 tribal members since 2002.

The Winnebago Tribe is now eyeing a major redevelopment of 40 acres north of its Ho-Chunk Village on the north end of its community. The development will include retail, parks, apartments and housing “on a rolling hill,” Morgan said.

“This will set us up for the next 20-25 years,” he said. "Winnebago should maybe even double in size in the next 20 years.”

The tribe is also currently helping the city of South Sioux City redevelop 200 acres of riverfront property along the Missouri River into new homes and has already completed several major projects in Sioux City, Iowa, including purchase of a high-rise known as Ho-Chunk Centre and renovation of older buildings that it has turned into upscale apartments.

“The Winnebago Tribe, its success is spilling over into the other regions,” he said.

He said the tribe also has begun installing hundreds of solar panels across the reservation. All of these efforts, Morgan said, are designed to help the tribe become self-sufficient.

“We sort of live in this world of paranoia and worry somebody’s going to take something from us,” he said. “I don’t know why. We’re just minding our own business, right?”

Ho-Chunk Inc. owns Indianz.Com. The website operates independently of the subsidiary involved in the tobacco business.

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