United Tribes News Speech Archives

Visions for Tribal Economic Development, Sovereignty and Treaty Rights
By Chairman Andrew Grey

       The following speech by Andrew Grey Sr., former Chairman of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe of Lake Traverse, Sisseton, SD, was presented during the United Tribes Intertribal Council Summit VI on September 4, 2002 in Bismarck, ND

      When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock nearly 400 years ago they brought with them a new economic system that would eventually be superimposed on us as tribal people. Many tribal people are still resentful even today of the past and have said how it would have been much better for us Indians if instead of the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock that Plymouth Rock had landed on the Pilgrims. I have chosen not to live in the past with the "would have, should have and could have," but to look at the past objectively to see what can be learned from it and what we can do now to make a better life for our tribal members.

      Economic development in Indian country is essential to our survival as Indian people. It is a new phrase to us Dakota and Lakota people but the concept of employment and contributing to our society is an old concept that is part of our culture. Everyone had a part in our society; they had a job to do a task to perform regardless of age or sex. It is true that some jobs and tasks were reserved for males and other tasks were for females. A male dominated society may not have been popular with the feminist movement but nevertheless it was part of our culture. This element also adds to other difficulties that we have encountered as Dakota people struggling with our efforts to be successful business people in a capitalistic society, a society that is diametrically opposed to the culture that we had for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years.

      I am not here to debate the pros and cons of capitalism or to say whether it is good or bad. But I am saying that capitalism is here to stay in America. If we are to be successful in combating unemployment and to break away from the grip of poverty and to plan the course of our future as tribal people, we must be successful in the relatively new area of capitalism.

      Before the arrival of non-Indians we did not have unemployment, lower living standards and poverty lines. In a capitalistic society a man is held in high esteem by his net worth, his assets minus his liabilities. He is held in high esteem by the amount of material possessions that he has accumulated. This was not the case in Dakota culture.

      In our culture a man's worth was not valued by the counting of his possessions and his money. Instead, a man's worth was valued by intangibles such as his wisdom when it was time to make a decision, his bravery and success on the battlefield, his ability to hit his target and provide food as a hunter and the amount of possessions he gave away to members of his tribe who were in need. In Dakota culture a man was held in esteem by what he gave to his society not what he took and possessed from his society.

      In a capitalistic society you are judged by what you possess individually. Your balance sheet must show that you possess more than what you owe if you are to be considered a good businessman. Your Dunn and Bradstreet must have a positive debt to equity ration if you are to receive a high rating. You must look good on paper and on your balance sheet, and be in the black if you are to be considered a good credit risk for a loan or potential partner in a business venture.

      As Tribal people we must be culturally open-minded. For example, when faced with tribal business opportunities an individual would tell me how much money he had and how much he was worth. I would think that if a man had to count his money to find out how much he was worth that he wasn't worth much. But I didn't say that to him. Instead, I had to be open-minded culturally and look at him from a business point of view. As Tribal people we must be able to walk in two cultures. We must be able to maintain our cultural values and still function in the capitalistic society of Main Street America.

      Our culture had a different view of what we esteemed as values. For example, we had a member of our tribe who fought in WWII and in Korea. He was recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor. He received the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart. He was wounded five times in combat with shrapnel and shot three times with a rifle. After 70 American soldiers were killed in an ambush he single handedly eliminated three pillboxes at one time. Our tribe held him in high esteem and we are currently trying to get him the congressional medal for which he was recommended. We hold him in esteem as a warrior based on our cultural values. When he died in 1982, he was living in a house that he bought for $3,500. His car had almost 200,000 miles on it and later sold for $500. Based on the capitalistic values of assets and net worth, how much would he have been worth if we counted up his money to judge him? You can answer that for yourself.

      What I am emphasizing is that Dakota people have different values and we must preserve them. At the same time we must function in an economic system that has a different set of values. Today we do not live off the land. We do not depend on the buffalo for our food and we live in a radically different society than we did 200 years ago. As Dakota and Lakota people we have a much more difficult time embracing the concept of "capitalism," which is the philosophical economic backbone of America.

      Capitalism has its origins in Europe. It does not value the intangibles that are esteemed in our culture. Capitalism is also focused on the individual, while culturally, the Dakotas operated on what was good for the entire tribal membership. I want to emphasize that I am not contending that capitalism is either good or bad. What I am saying is that there are cultural factors that have made capitalism an especially difficult concept for us Dakota people to embrace.

      In a capitalistic society with free enterprise, you are judged by your balance sheet, your assets, possessions, and your debt to equity ration in your Dunn and Bradstreet. On paper you must show that you have in your possession more than what you owe others. You must be on the black side of the balance sheet with your liabilities and assets to be considered a good risk for a loan or a good potential business partner. So, instead of giving possessions away, you must hoard them and keep them for yourself and then you will be judged successful in America's capitalistic, materialistic society.

      Dakota people want good things for our people and our children, including good health and a good quality of life. That has not changed. The way we must meet those needs and goals has changed. And we must change too. That change has not come easy for us. It is not impossible. In fact, we have some very good success stories in Indian country but it has not been an easy road, nor has it been a short road.

      The economic success stories of Indian country are those enterprises initiated by the tribes themselves. Tribal members know what will work best on our reservations in the area of economic development, even though historically we are not capitalists or businessmen. Efforts to develop reservation economies by non-Indians, no matter how well intended, have been, for the most part, failures.

      The Allotment Act of 1889 did not make us farmers. The relocation effort in the 1950s did not assimilate us into mainstream America as the "Melting Pot" theory predicted. Remember the "Melting Pot" theory? All ethnic groups and minorities were suppose to theoretically melt into mainstream America and forget their ethnic and cultural backgrounds and come out as mainstream Americans - hence the name "melting pot." Everyone would melt into one culture. Boarding school policies to stop us from speaking our language hurt us culturally but we did not forget we were Dakotas and we did not blend into mainstream America and melt in the "melting pot." Instead, the only thing that melted was the melting pot.

      If there is going to be successful economic development on Indian reservations and in Indian communities, we as Indian people have to be the authors and finishers of the business entity. Successful financial ventures in Indian country must come from the tribes. We must look at the unique status that we have, based on treaties and trust land, and determine how this can be translated into an economic advantage in the capitalistic society that we live in.

      That is not to say that we do not want help from the financial and technical institutions out in mainstream America. This does not mean we are going to be an island unto ourselves. But we have to take the lead, plot the course and direction, and then we will call on the non-Indian society for assistance as needed.

      We must always remember our treaties as Indian people. Our treaties are what make us unique historically and legally. The federal government does not have any treaties with the Blacks or Hispanics in the United States like they have with Indian tribes. We must protect the treaty rights but at the same time use them where we can for our economic advantage. When we made treaties with the federal government we gave up our lifestyle; we gave up our way of living and our land. In return, we were promised a lifestyle that would give us a better quality of life. We must not let the federal government forget their treaty obligations. In business ventures we must also be careful that we do not compromise or weaken our treaty rights for a short-term financial gain. Remember that treaties are the "supreme law of the land." That is written in the Constitution of the United States. Every Congressman and Senator, who takes an oath of office, pledges to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Also, treaties are interpreted to the benefit of the weaker party in the treaty. We must have the best advocacy available when it comes to promoting our legal position in the business arena. We did not want to make a treaty with the federal government; they wanted to make a treaty with us. The non-Indians did not ask us if we wanted treaties or if we wanted them to go back to Europe. We did not have a choice in whether they stayed or not. Our ancestors fought for the best treaties they could get and now we must keep the treaties in the forefront of our tribal endeavors. It galls me that we even have our own tribal members who do not recognize the significance of our treaties.

      Treaty rights are not limited to the economic ventures of the tribe. They work together in the areas of health care and jurisdiction. For example, some individuals say health care isn't a treaty obligation because they couldn't find the word or phrase "health care" in the treaty. We must continually educate our tribal membership as well as staff people on the importance of treaties.

      As Indian people we must advocate for ourselves to the greatest extent possible because if we don't, no one else will. Everything that we have in the area of gaming at the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe was won in a court of law. Our high-stakes blackjack was determined in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. The State of South Dakota filed a legal brief against what we were doing. Even after we explained to them the unemployment rates and where the revenue would go, they still opposed us. After we won the legal battle, they said that they wanted to work with us in good faith. You can always expect a battle when you want to do something good for your tribe.

      Treaties are of paramount importance to us as a tribe for economic purposes and this must be emphasized to our managers and employees. I have often thought that we should require an oath of office that includes recognition, promotion and protection for treaty rights as a job requirement for all jobs within the tribal umbrella. For example, health care is part of a "better quality of life." It is trading one lifestyle for another lifestyle. Our ancestors had a good quality of life before the non-Indians came but they traded the land for a supposedly better quality of life. You won't find the word "hospital" in the treaties but you cannot have a better quality of life today without a hospital. As Indian people we must always be in a position to protect and promote the treaty obligation. You don't find the word "computers" in the treaties but we know a school must have computers to teach the children to be computer literate and computer literacy is part of today's education. We need to educate our tribal members and non-tribal members of the importance of treaties. We owe that to our ancestors.

      It was tribal members who brainstormed the most successful business in Indian country today. That business was based on trust land that was in the treaties. That business is Indian gaming. The Bureau of Indian Affairs budget nationwide is approximately $1 billion and the Indian Health Service budget is approximately $3 billion. Indian gaming is a $10 billion industry. It had its roots with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. They decided it was within their own treaty rights to play a game of chance on their trust land the way they wanted to and for the amount of money they wanted. They had to fight it out in court but they eventually won the court battle and from there other tribes built on that foundation.

      Because of the success of Indian gaming, Indian tribes have advanced in the political arena. The White House now appoints those individuals who will be the National Indian Gaming Commission. Jennifer Farley, a spokesperson for the President of the United States, attended a meeting with the Tribal Chairman of Lower Brule and she said she would ask the President to invite tribal leaders to the White House for a meeting. If this were to take place it could be said, in the words of Jesse Jackson, that Indians have gone from "the outhouse to the White House."

      When we started gaming at Sisseton, the Bureau of Indian Affairs Indian Finance Act helped with our gaming efforts. We received HUD/CDBG money but the initial grants were small by today's standards. However, they got us moving in the gaming area. The big financial help came from the Seminole Tribe of Florida. After they won their court battle they were quick to help other tribes with financing. We received our largest financial assistance from another Dakota band. Our success is that Indian ideas have resulted in financial success with Indian tribes helping other tribes.

      At Sisseton, financial success didn't come without financial failures. I don't want to sound too critical of failed efforts in the past. There were good intentions with our tribe's paint and chemical factory, the tribal farm, the tribal cattle operation, and the tribal store. All ended in financial failure. The fallout was tribal members trying to attach blame to the right party and others trying not to share in the blame of failure. Even today, it is not a popular subject but I give all parties credit for trying to break out of the cycle of poverty. It was a learning experience and I commend those for their efforts. An old cliché says, "it's better to have tried and failed than to have never tried at all." There is some truth to that. I am not being critical of the past failures; I am focusing on the success that we have finally achieved from Indian people in the area of gaming.

      This does not mean, however, that all casinos are profitable and that it's a "no brainer" operation. It is a serious and expensive business. You cannot afford to be wrong too often or too long, or you will be broke. Our biggest competition now is other Indian-owned casinos. At Sisseton we have over 700 jobs that are casino related and will have approximately 35 more jobs when our golf course is finished.

      I think, as Indian people, we are reaching another level and that is in the political arena. In South Dakota the Indian vote has never been so important as it is now. When we develop economically we will also develop politically. The tribes must have a strong voice in the political system both locally and nationally if we are to protect our treaties, our culture, and our way of life. The tribal vote is being viewed as a powerful vote especially in a close election. We have to grow politically just as we are growing economically.

      As I conclude my speech, which will be one of my last speeches as my term of office is coming to an end and I will not be seeking re-election, I want to leave you with a positive message. We can plan our course and our future. We can develop a prosperous future for our children. We can overcome battles, just as Dr. David Gipp can attest to with the recent battle to keep UTTC open. In case some of you were not aware of the recent funding crisis with UTTC, the Bush Administration made such dramatic financial cuts to United Tribes that the school would have closed its doors. But thanks to the leadership of Dr. Gipp and solid support from many tribes in the area and in the political arena, Congress restored the funding. This is an example of how we, as Indian people, have to be ready to fight for what is ours, for what is good, and for what is right.

      The battles are never easy and they're always stressful but just as UTTC had its victory, we too can have victories in other arenas. There will always be fights. So, be strong logistically, mentally, and spiritually, and you too will have the victory. Thank you.