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Jan. 7, 2024 |  By: Deborah Van Fleet - Public News Service

Study credits diversification for Winnebago Tribe success

ho chunk tribe

By Deborah Van Fleet - Public News Service

A new study calls the economic and social changes brought about by the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska over the past three decades "a story of numerous achievements."

Ho-Chunk, Inc. sponsored the report by consulting economist Jonathan Taylor - president of Taylor Policy Group. Taylor said his observations include the doubling of the Tribe's middle class over the last 30 years.

He attributed this to their multiple institutions - with about 3,500 jobs in Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa in 2022, and a combined payroll of nearly $200 million.

"And that surprise change is really what American Indian economic development has been endeavoring to achieve across the country," said Taylor. "And this is in a remote Plains tribe, in the poorest county of Nebraska."

Among the Tribe's entities are its oldest and largest, Ho-Chunk, Inc. - as well as several for-profit and nonprofit institutions, including a college, a hospital, and community development corporation.

Taylor said he also found an issue needing attention - one-third of the Tribe's children are growing up in poverty.

However, the proportion of members living below the Federal Poverty Line has shrunk from one half to one third.

Taylor noted that the number of tribal members with college degrees and skills training has "effectively quadrupled" in the past 20 years.

He said the Tribe's ability to thrive gained momentum with its steps to "diversify" from the gaming industry back in the 1990s.

"And the multitude of these institutions," said Taylor, "their different capacities, their different specializations, their different ability to raise money, or bring money as revenue from sales to customer - really explains a lot of their success."

Lance Morgan, founder and CEO of Ho-Chunk, Inc. - the Tribe's economic development corporation - called the tribe's "multi-institutional" approach "key" to its success.

He said failing to do this is one reason poverty is intractable on many reservations.

"Unless you unleash the natural abilities of tribal people through these institutions, you never go anywhere," said Morgan. "We have been really focused on this development of institutions and people across the board. And what's happening is, is that natural organic growth is happening."

Morgan said the success of their institutions has also brought about changes in the Tribal Council's role.

"All the Tribe has to do is sort of set the table and set policy, which is kind of what the government does in the United States," said Morgan. "And all of the growth used to happen from the Council down. And that never really worked, because you have an unstable body with varying skillsets that change from year to year."

Morgan said their population has grown by 30% in the past eight years.