By Levi Rickert
One of 38 American Indian tribes in Oklahoma, the Otoe-Missouria Tribe is based in a remote rural area called Red Rock. Being one of 38 tribes can cause a certain amount of competitiveness when it comes to economic development—particularly capturing revenue from casinos.
With the competition, it was imperative for the Otoe-Missouria Tribe to look beyond gaming to build its tribal economy. Seven years ago, the tribe established an online installment lending business to augment and diversify its tribal economy.
“Tribes have good ideas, but lack the capital to invest in business enterprises,” says John R. Shotton, who has been the tribal chairman of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe since 2007. “Our casinos allowed us to have capital and banking relationships to begin our financial services. Our financial services business come in a close second our casino revenue now. So, it has been a huge success for the tribe.”
Shotton, who grew up in his tribal community, has led the changes and comes equipped with bachelor of business administration and master of public administration degrees from the University of Oklahoma.
The tribe other business enterprises, include a propane company and cattle ranch. The propane company allows for competitive prices for tribal citizens and businesses in the Red Rock area. The ranch covers over 900 acres and the herd has grown to 600 head of a blend of Black Angus cattle that go to market twice a year.
The tribe has been working for the past two years to obtain a charter for a credit union that will open for business in early 2017. Shotton says for many in the tribal community the closest bank is a 30-minute drive. The credit union will allow tribal members and others in the Red Rock area to do banking right in their own community.
“Tribal citizens need to see outcomes of economic development efforts by the tribe. They need to see new jobs and other new opportunities,” Shotton says. “I think in Indian Country, letting that is the balance that local municipalities and government may not have to deal with. The outcomes have to be real, not just hearsay.”
As tribal chairman, Shotton spends about half of his time oneconomic development activities; the rest is spent helping run the tribal government.
“I think it is important to maintain a stable tribal government so that economic development can occur. … Our government is very stable, which has allowed us to do what we have done with economic development successes,” states Shotton.
Shotton discussed the tribe’s economic successes and more in an interview with TBJ:
Prior to becoming chairman of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe, what experience did you have that prepared you to improve economic development for the tribe?
While attending graduate school at the University of Oklahoma, I was employed at the American Indian Institute as a program development specialist. My colleagues and I administered several federal and state contracts for the benefit of Indian communities throughout the United States. Being able to visit several reservations and communities throughout the United States and see firsthand what tribes were doing to improve their economic situation was very enlightening and beneficial to me. It provided some great insight into what could be done if your tribal government focused its efforts on economic development. On other side, I saw some strategies that were not successful and tried to learn what obstacles and pitfalls to avoid along the way.
Tell TBJ’s readers about one major challenge your tribe had to overcome to become successful and how you got over it.
Taking the risk to get started down a path of economic development and self-sufficiency was the largest challenge that I have witnessed during my tenure on the tribal council. A little over 10 years ago, we developed the plans for our largest casino property, First Council Casino.
We put together a bank financed funding package of $30 million to construct and open phase a green field project. [Green field projects are initiatives that aren’t related to previous activity.] The size and scope of that project at the time dwarfed any project that the tribe had undertaken on its own. After much study and debate on the potential risk versus potential reward for the tribe, our Council at the time approved the financing package and construction contracts. Thankfully, that project was successful and has led to several other phases of economic development at our tribe. That first step was somewhat scary, but we haven’t looked back since.
Our tribal councils have been very supportive and have assisted our development authority to develop additional enterprises as well as to enhance our existing enterprises and facilities to address our competitors.
As a percentage, how much of your time is spent on economic development for the Otoe-Missouria Tribe?
I spend about 50 percent of my time focused on economic development. I would like to spend more, however, my other duties the tribal chairman require just as much of my attention. Economic development and tribal governance go together in my opinion. Rarely can economic development be successful if the tribal government is in chaos or is unstable.
In my 10 years, as tribal chairman, I have been fortunate to work with several tribal councils that shared my commitment for increased economic development. With their help, we have been able to provide a stable tribal government that has allowed our tribal development authority to pursue projects and expand our tribal economic base. It has been very helpful when we are looking for investment in our tribe.
What has your administration done to create a business-friendly environment in your part of Oklahoma?
The tribal councils that I have had the pleasure of working with over the past 10 years work very hard to provide a stable, reliable and strong regulatory and compliance environment. They have worked together with our development authority to create business-friendly laws and regulations that have allowed us to establish enterprises that lead us toward self-sufficiency. As a physically isolated tribe with a small land base, this progressive thinking has been vital to our economic development success.
What do see you as business opportunities for Indian Country?
I am heavily involved in how Indian Country, specifically the Otoe-Missouria Tribe, can be more engaged and diversified in the financial industries and markets. Some parts of Indian Country have developed a tremendous amount of wealth through development of their natural resources, gaming and other economic ventures. Most of us still depend heavily on non-tribal entities and systems to fund our projects, invest our monies, and to provide other financial services. I think that if Indian Country really took a close look at how much money we allow to leave our communities and/or leave on the table by continuing to conduct business this way, the numbers would be shocking. There is no reason that tribally-owned financial institutions and financial service companies as well as Native American entrepreneurs and content experts couldn’t fulfill some of these services.
Pease tell us about the Otoe-Missouria Tribe’s financial services.
As a tribe with a land base located in a rural area far from any metropolitan area, our economic development options have traditionally been limited. These businesses are online and allow consumers to apply from the privacy and convenience of their own homes. Our financial services businesses help under banked consumers get the credit they need. To protect our consumers, we have established regulations as well as a regulatory commission. In addition, we use sophisticated technology and risk systems to provide safe, secure credit to our customers, even when they’ve been turned down by others. Profits from our financial services businesses are used to fund social programs, assist our elders, provide housing, fund public safety programs and programs for our youth. These companies are a vital part of our economic success and self-sufficiency.
What does the Otoe-Missouria Tribe do to ensure it does more business with American Indian-owned businesses?
Working with American Indian-owned businesses is a priority for the Otoe-Missouria Tribe. Our TERO (Tribal Employment Rights Office) is instrumental in all construction bids at our tribal complex and American Indian vendors are preferred vendors for the tribe across all tribal departments.
What new business ventures may the tribe become involved with in 2017?
We have spent the past 24 months working to obtain a charter from the National Credit Union Association for the Otoe-Missouria Federal Credit Union.
We hope to obtain our charter in the first quarter of 2017. I am excited about this new endeavor. The proposed credit union will be able to assist our employees and tribal members to obtain banking services. We will also be able to provide banking and financial services to our tribal government as well as our tribal enterprises. Banking and financial services is one of the cornerstones of any community.
What advice do you live by?
In any situation, the results that you can expect to achieve are indicative of the effort that you put into it. Whether it is a conducting a ceremony, starting a business, or any other endeavor. You must put your best efforts forward and recruit the best individuals that you can to assist you if you want positive and sustainable results. ♦