Recession severe for White Earth Reservation, but progress still taking place
MAHNOMEN - White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor said that the meltdown of the economy might have started in Washington and Wall Street, but its effects have hit the reservation particularly hard.
"The effect has been economically severe and harsh to us on the White Earth Reservation," Vizenor said. "We have suffered budget cuts in law enforcement, fire protection, road maintenance, education, housing and social services, as well as health care that has been on a respirator for years while chronic disease has continue to escalate."
Vizenor, in making her annual State of the Nation address at the Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen last Friday, said that some of the effects of the poor economy that has trickled down to White Earth is the pay freeze for the over 1,700 employees of the White Earth Reservation, which includes workers at Shooting Star Casino. She said the tribal payroll is $21 million.
"It isn't the fault of the council of anyone," she said. "It is the condition of the economy."
She added that the economic outlook isn't great right now.
"Nationally and locally, jobs are disappearing, companies are closing," Vizenor said. "It sounds bleak and it is."
The recession has limited the White Earth Band's ability to deliver everything it should in a timely manner, Vizenor said.
"During this economic downturn, we have managed to keep people employed, deliver services and accomplish growth and progress," Vizenor said. "Albeit, not as strongly or as swiftly if the economy was a lot better."
Vizenor, though, sees hope with President Obama taking office. She said that the reservation wouldn't see an immediate change, but that a turning point has occurred.
"He didn't promise a miracle or an immediate fix to the problems we have been facing," Vizenor said, "but he said it will take time, and quotes, we will build and recover."
The stimulus bodes well for American Indians around the country. She said that $2.5 billion would go toward infrastructure projects in Indian Country. In addition, $2.4 billion is available for bonds and credits, loans in essence, for new projects on tribal lands throughout the country.
"This total package in this one stimulus bill is more than what (happened in) eight years of what President Bush did for Indian Country," Vizenor said.
She said that there are more than 700 pages of law to pour through and that the White Earth Band would apply for every project it could possibly get.
"Although it is a one-time appropriation of money, it is of great relief to us," Vizenor said.
Some of that relief is being poured into housing projects. Vizenor told reporters after the State of the Tribe address that the White Earth Band wouldn't have built any new housing in 2009 without the infusion of money.
"It has affected us in a very harsh way," she said. "Especially when you have I'd say 1,100 people on the housing waiting list. And many of those people are what I would call homeless because there are two to three generations living in a home."
With the economic problems limiting what the White Earth band can do, Vizenor said that despite the challenges, there have been successes in the past year. The Oshki Manidoo, or New Spirit, Center in Bemidji was purchased by the reservation in 2008.
The 30-bed facility on 40 acres of land for a youth treatment facility opened in January.
"We have got to save our youth, and White Earth did something about it," Vizenor said.
Vizenor also congratulated the White Earth Tribal and Community College for receiving accreditation in the past year.
In other initiatives in education, Vizenor is working on state equalization aid for the tribal college.
"I know it's a long shot, but I am ready to take long shots," she said.
Also on her agenda is trying to get tuition waivers for American Indian students who attend public colleges in Minnesota.
A new K-12 Circle of Life School is still being planned. "Whatever cuts we have to make here as a tribe, we are not going to fall back behind on progress."
Vizenor said she is working on getting a veteran's cemetery for the reservation. It would be paid for and maintained by the state Department of Veteran's Affairs.
Other good news, Vizenor said that the reservation has celebrated in the past year with a new tribal headquarters building and new powwow grounds.
She also said that a constitutional convention should be ratified at the next meeting on April 3 and 4. She said that the proposed constitution would be presented to the White Earth Band for a public vote.
The convention will be held at the Shooting Star Casino.