Native American Heritage Month: Federally Recognized Tribes Prepared for Challenges Brought on By COVID-19. Op-ed by Deidra Mitchell

Nov 27, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic first swept across the country and Michigan earlier this year, I looked around our office and wondered, like so many CEOs, what this would mean for us? What will this mean for generations to come?

The lingering economic effects of the virus seemed destined to hit tribal communities hard, just like so many West Michigan businesses. As many of us take time this week to celebrate and give thanks, I ask that you spend the remaining days of Native American Heritage Month recognizing the economic contributions of Michigan’s federally recognized tribes.

For so many tribes, our histories have been marked by resilience and fights for sovereignty. So as the pandemic tossed yet another obstacle in front us, I felt confident the growing strength of tribal nations in the state would overcome this, too. And what many don’t know is that Michigan’s tribal communities have been working on business practices that are diversified and resilient — preparing for the very challenges we’re currently facing.

It’s no secret that tribal nations’ primary revenues are driven by gaming. As the pandemic made it all but certain that gaming opportunities would be closed until deemed safe, our main source of revenue became a question mark. Tribal nations have always known that gaming couldn’t sustain the tribal communities forever and the pandemic was going to test this theory.

That’s why organizations, like Waséyabek Development Company, the nongaming economic wing of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi Indians, and tribal nations have sought to expand and diversify tribal income streams.

An economic impact study of nine of Michigan’s 12 federally recognized tribes, published earlier this year, measured the successes of nongaming businesses entities owned and operated by the tribes. The study looked at a collective 38 tribal businesses entities, finding they generated an impact of nearly $289 million for the state with just over $24 million in federal and state taxes.

These 38 businesses are scattered across the state, from Wayne County to the Upper Peninsula, with a diversified portfolio of operations. Tribes now do business in utilities, construction, manufacturing, real estate, professional, scientific and technical services, as well as arts and entertainment and finance. These 38 businesses provide 1,847 jobs with an average salary of $45,600.

The impact of the businesses extends to local economies and goes far beyond the lens of gaming that so many see tribes through. These businesses have helped form a sustainable future for tribes and been a backbone during a disruptive pandemic.

Which is why this month, November being Native American Heritage Month, means much more, especially during the pandemic. Our history has been one of resilience and sovereignty. Tribal nations are sovereign within the state of Michigan, meaning tribal members rely on the tribe and its efforts for their well-being.

It also explains why tribal development companies exist — for the purpose of sustaining our community in ways out-of-the-ordinary for many tribes. We have a saying within our walls at Waséyabek Development Company: We don’t make decisions for the next seven years but for the next seven generations.

It’s principles like this from which many tribal nations make decisions. As nations, we want to diversify the opportunities for our tribes and announce to the state we are here, we welcome your business and we’re expanding the notion of what a tribal nation can do.

We do all of this for the betterment of the tribe and as an ode to those who came before us and for the ones who will come after us. It’s at moments like these during the pandemic and during Native American Heritage Month where I think about how far we’ve come, how much work is still left to do and why we do it.

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