Gov. Mark Gordon said this week the state of Wyoming under his leadership has a role to play in reducing the layers of government bureaucracy that impede economic development on the Wind River Indian Reservation.
During an event at the University of Wyoming on Wednesday, Gordon acknowledged he still has “much to learn” about what the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes most need to spur economic growth.
“If you think about what happens on the reservation, you have multiple layers of government that makes things much more difficult,” he said. “We need to make sure we work as a state and tribes with the federal government to make sure we clear the way to make it much easier to start a business.”
He remarks came as part of the “WY-Wind River: Economic Development & Entrepreneurship Symposium,” where he, UW President Laurie Nichols and tribal leaders came together at the Arts & Sciences building to discuss ways UW and the state can do to help the reservation flourish.
During a panel discussion, former Shoshone Business Council member Orville St. Clair said he hopes the tribes can work with Gordon’s administration on reducing the tax burden on oil companies, which he said struggle to make make a profit from drilling on the reservation because of the multiple layers of taxation from the tribes, state and federal government.
“It can’t go on for much longer,” St. Clair said.
The event’s keynote speaker, Gary Davis, said cooperative enterprise across multiple reservations is one of the greatest economic opportunities for American Indian people.
Davis also urged the tribes on Wednesday to find ways to spur entrepreneurship, rather than relying on tribally-operated businesses to reduce unemployment.
“If we’re trying to get off of federal dependency and create sustainable, self-sufficient communities, then just the tribe creating enterprises does nothing more than create that same instance all over again,” Davis said. “It’s just the tribe, instead of federal government, doing the giving to the community.”
Davis is the executive director of the Native American Financial Services Association and is a member of the Forbes Finance Council.
State Rep. Andi Clifford, D-Fort Washakie, did say she feels like the services the Wind River Hotel and Casino provides to its employees will help foster other businesses in coming years.
When Clifford began working at the casino in 2005, there were 62 employees. When she left in 2018, there were 10 times that number after Northern Arapaho’s venture, the only American Indian casino business in the U.S. without a statewide gaming compact, began Fremont County’s largest employer.
Clifford was being groomed to take over as the casino’s CEO when she opted to leave her assistant manager position to start a consulting business.
During her time at the casino, about $1 million each year was spent on managerial training. The casino also spends about $400,000 to provide substance abuse counseling and other support, and the tribe is currently constructing a $3.7 million daycare on site.
“That’s what going to help economic development, is to heal our people,” Clifford said.
Software developer Jerad Stack and Wind River Development Fund director Cy Lee, both of whom served on the state’s ENDOW council, expressed optimism that the reservation has certain advantages that could, in coming years, be attractive to the tech sector and other business.
“There are some really unique things that the reservation has that the rest of the state doesn’t,” Stack said. “And one of them is workforce. If you look at the demographics of the state, Wyoming is getting older — significantly getting older. That’s not true on the Wind River Reservation. There are youth there that companies can go tap into.”
Lee noted that Wind River Internet, a venture of the Arapaho tribe, is currently building a redundant carbon fiber loop around the reservation that will provide an unusual level of internet connectivity.
“There aren’t many communities in Wyoming that will have that redundancy — and it will be 2-3 times over,” Lee said.
Tribal Game and Fish Director Art Lawson said that he’s hopeful that the tribes’ planned experiment with offering hunting tags to non-tribal members might, if successful, lead to a climate that spurs hospitality businesses, lodging, sporting good stores and outfitting on the reservation.
Gordon and other attendees praised Nichols’s work with the tribes during her presidency.
“It’s amazing what President Nichols has done with this university and how we coming together to grow our economy across all of our communities,” Gordon said.
Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, praise Nichols’s “wonderful efforts to support Native American students, faculty and our tribal leadership in Wyoming on the Wind River Reservation in general.”
“I think anytime I hear President Nichols’s name, my heart swells when I think of all the important work that she’s done her in Wyoming,” Ellis said.