COMMENTARY: Economic Diversification – Are we there yet?

by Feb 6, 2021OPINIONS





We have been saying it for years. The Tribe needs to diversify. For years, for decades, we have talked about how much we need to diversify. Until the casino arrived, we were like many other Indian nations, drawing in a relatively meager revenue from tourism taxation and heavily dependent on grants for sustaining ourselves year-to-year. If there was any kind of per capita distribution, you might see a few hundred dollars in a year, and not necessarily every year. Municipalities around us were not very supportive, partly because politicians in those municipalities had a duty to their constituencies to make every dollar work in their municipalities. Supporting the Tribe with monies that could be used for their citizens could cost them votes and position. So, we lived on tourist pennies, federal assistance, and commodities. 

I went to college, pre-casino. The Tribe had an education program, but nothing like we have today. I went to Sylva-Webster High School. Like many Cherokee and Jackson County youth, I grew up poor. My original plan for after leaving high school was to enlist in military service. It was the only path that I could think of to get to higher education. 

I will never forget the first time I met a man named Phillip Smith. He was one of the tallest men I had ever seen. I remember the big turquoise bracelet and ring he used to wear. He worked with the education program in Cherokee and would visit Cherokee tribal members in the local schools to advise them of funding that was available for tribal members to go to college. He talked with me, saying that with a combination of what then was called a Pell grant and tribal funding, I could get a college education. I hesitated at first, but Mr. Smith was offering an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. I definitely qualified for the Pell, because I was definitely low income, but the Pell depended on federal appropriation and the amount of support varied from semester-to-semester. On the tribal side, the education program would sometimes fund more than half of the tuition to offset the disparity in the Pell. 

So, I had a job on the side and my parents were helping me with food and between the federal government, tribal government, my parents, and a little elbow grease on my part, I earned a four-year degree. This was back in the days when the Tribe’s economic engine was equivalent to a moped motor, not the sports car engine it is today. 

In 2007, I was able to get into a masters degree program and by 2009 had an MBA. All tribally-funded, including grade incentive payments for getting good grades, again, all completely tribally-funded – one of the many differences in an economic Schwinn engine and an economic Corvette engine. 

Our leaders, Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed, Vice Chief Alan B. Ensley, Tribal Council Chairman Adam Wachacha, Tribal Council Vice Chairman David Wolfe, and all the members of Tribal Council have reminded us how blessed we are to have the economic driver that our casino is. The great things we enjoy are primarily due to the revenues generated by the casino operations. When the casino arrived in the late 1990s, tribal income rose from the low tens of millions of dollars to the low hundreds of millions of dollars. 

Chief Sneed recently explained, on the Tribal Council broadcasts, that Harrah’s Cherokee has been one of the top performing casinos in the country. Not just Indian Country, but the entire United States. So, what’s to worry about? Who needs diversification?

The truth is that our tribal leaders have been telling us for many years that we must diversify. As long as a cash cow is the only cow in the neighborhood, life is good. But let just one tribe or entity bring in another cow, and your cow slowly starts to starve. Bring in another cow, and your cow starves a little faster. If you don’t buy some more livestock, you are looking at economic death. 

Humans are creatures of habit. We tend to live to our means and many times beyond our means. If you ask an elder if they could have foreseen a time on the Qualla Boundary when our Tribe would be generating $300 to $400 million and would be having to operate programs on cost containment measures to conserve funds, they probably would have laughed at you, first for suggesting that the Tribe would ever make that kind of money and then for saying we wouldn’t be able to live on it. And yet, here we are. 

So far, actual competition on the ground hasn’t happened yet, but we certainly have had a taste of what it can be like. Like COVID-19 weakened and sickened human bodies, it also decimated local economies, and Cherokee was no exception. Tribal programs were initially told to cut their spending by 50 percent across the board. Tribal members were waiting on tribal and federal stimulus checks. Long lines of nervous tribal members picking up boxes of food at the Fairgrounds. Are we really that far from where we were-living off tourist pennies, federal assistance, and commodities? As a side note, I have yet to see one of those large portions of block cheese (that were so delicious back-in-the-day) in those weekly food distributions. I miss those. 

Our Chiefs and Council have told us the economic impact on us, directly, if threats like a Catawba casino and Lumbee entrance into gaming would have on our lives if they became a reality. We have wasted a lot of time focusing economic development efforts on bricks and mortar on the Boundary, instead of taking note of the examples of successful tribal gamers like the Seminole, who have built an international empire. 

Part of it is political. It must be when our government leaders are in perpetual campaign mode, having to appease a constituency that will have opportunity to vacate their seats every two years. So, instead of economic diversification, we end up with municipal spread. We build municipal infrastructure, or worse, we build buildings and design programs with no plan for funding the day-to-day operations. Initially, there may be a grant to build or create, but grants do not typically sustain a program or building long-term. 

Part of the problem is that we are complacent, apathetic about economic development. As long as we can goad our leaders into giving us our community buildings, hospital and school upgrades, and other municipal programming, not to mention our per capita distributions, we are content. 

But, the rules of cause and effect are catching up with us. We cannot continue to build buildings and programs that make us feel good if we don’t provide an offsetting way to pay for those amenities. We were at the tipping point before COVID-19 ever came along. 

The Hicks Administration, the Lambert Administration, and now the Sneed Administration, and the corresponding Tribal Councils of those administrations, all said the same thing – we are spending as much or more than we are making. Now that we have had the experience of nearly a year of stifled income, closed borders and businesses, and restricted work schedules, we should be getting the hint. 

We, the constituency, bear some blame. When was the last time you saw an annual report from the casino operations? Remember when we used to get those in our mailboxes? How about those annual state of the tribe annual reports that Chief Hicks used to put out? When was the last time you got a concise, understandable report from your leaders? Do any of the tribal entities provide you with a summary document on their work and progress? How often do we get reporting from Sequoyah National or the Kituwah LLC? Have you ever complained because the sound went out or someone didn’t turn on their microphone when the business of our tribe was being conducted on cable or on the livestream? Do you understand that the audio/video they record during the Tribal Council sessions is the one and only official documentation of those governmental meetings? No transcription is done, no minutes for the Tribal Council to review and approve, and none for us to examine. 

Are we any more economically diverse than we were two decades ago? Certainly, we have more buildings and programs than we had 20 years ago. We may even feel like we are doing better because we are leveraging what we have to the betterment of our lifestyles. 

But what about the future? If we build programs and municipal buildings without planning to generate the income to offset the cost, are we really planning for our futures or, more importantly, our children’s futures? Or, will there come a time when the threats become reality, or the next big pandemic kills the cash cow that shuts down programs, lays off workers, and brings a great sovereign nation back to near total dependence on the federal government? I don’t know the answers to those questions. Do you? And if you don’t, what are you going to do about it? Will we do something to promote economic diversification or just sit and eat another hunk of cheese? 

We are definitely not there yet.