In 1991, the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska had a 76 percent unemployment rate among Indians on its reservation. Crime had reached epidemic proportions. Alcoholism and substance abuse were rampant, and the educational system had serious deficiencies. By 1991, most tribal assets acquired pursuant to treaty had been liquidated, including 80 percent of the reservation land, which had been sold to non-Indians. To survive at a subsistence level, the tribe and its members had become heavily dependent on federal programs and subsidies (Bass, 1998).
In 1992, the unemployment rate at the reservation dramatically dropped to 11 percent (U.S. Department of the Interior, 1993). Today, unemployment is 5 percent (TCJ, 1998). Criminal activity has taken a nose dive. Alcoholism and substance abuse are being aggressively treated, and millions of dollars have been pumped into the reservation’s educational system from Headstart through college (TCJ, 1998; Winnebago Indian News, 1995).
Since 1992, tribal assets have grown to include ownership in a total of 15 hotels, six apartment complexes, a modular housing manufacturing company, a grocery store, a gas station, a mini-mall complex, buildings on and off the reservation, and several farms. The tribe also has acquired a substantial portfolio in stocks and bonds, implemented an ambitious program for buying back reservation land currently held by non-Indians, commenced a major housing development on the reservation, and provided annual per capita distributions of cash grants to all its people (Winnebago Indian News, 1998, Littlebeaver, 1998).
The driving force for this remarkable turnaround can be traced directly to the spring of 1992, when the tribe opened a Las Vegas style casino on its reservation about 20 miles south of Sioux City, Iowa. During the last few years, the tribe has made more money than it had ever made in its entire history.
The purpose of this article is to examine not only the change of fortune for the tribe but to consider the casino’s collateral impact on education and crime at the reservation.
Casino’s impact on education
It is important to understand that education has always been a high priority for the Winnebagos. In the tribe’s earliest treaty negotiations with the federal government, tribal leaders insisted on provisions for educating the Winnebago people, especially the children. Unfortunately, abject poverty combined with the federal government’s failure to fulfill its treaty obligations often conspired against Indians at the reservation.
To illustrate the inadequacy of educational programs on the reservation, one need only look at the educational attainment of the tribal leadership during the decade of the 1960s. Leaders often reflect in themselves the qualities deemed most desirable by their constituents. In the 1960s, the average educational level of a member of the Tribal Council was only eight years of schooling (Native American Rights Fund, 1985).
Nevertheless, tribal members never lost sight of their educational polestar. In 1973, the tribe initiated a college program at its reservation that later evolved into the Nebraska Indian Community College and also served the Santee Sioux and Omaha Reservations in Nebraska. By 1985, the impact of higher education on the Winnebago Tribal Council and the reservation community was impressive. The average educational level of a tribal council member was 14 years. One member of the council had a master’s degree, two had bachelor’s degrees, one had an associate of arts degree, and several others had two to three years of college. The chief judge of the Winnebago Tribal Children’s Court, an enrolled member of the tribe, had a law degree. Many other tribal employees in the relatively new and expanding tribal government held college degrees, from associate to doctorates. (Native American Rights Fund, 1985). Unfortunately job opportunities at the reservation did not keep pace with the academic attainment of the Indians, and unemployment rates continued at between 60 and 80 percent (Bass, 1998).
In 1991, Iowa enacted state laws to provide for casinos within its boundaries. Operating under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) of 1988, the Winnebagos opened their own casino on a salient of reservation land that extended across the Missouri River into Iowa. (Nebraska law prohibits casinos). As millions of dollars from the casino flowed into tribal coffers, the tribal council never forgot its commitment to education, and it manifested that commitment in several ways.
First, the minutes of the tribal council meetings during the first years of the casino’s operation were filled with many individual requests for financial assistance from Winnebagos pursuing bachelor’s and graduate college degrees. These requests were routinely approved and funded by the council.
Second, the council immediately authorized a $100 annual clothing allowance (subsequently raised to $150) for every school-age child enrolled in the tribe from kindergarten through twelfth grade (Winnebago Indian News, 1998).
Third, during the first years of the casino, the council provided $120,000 to the primary and secondary schools at the reservation to revamp the curriculum and upgrade the computer laboratory (Winnebago Indian News, 1996).
Fourth, in 1995 the council decided to dedicate 5 percent of all future casino profits for educational programs for the Winnebago people (Winnebago Indian News, 1995).
Fifth, in 1996 the tribal council decided to establish its very own tribal college to honor the memory of its last great war chief from the 1860s, Little Priest, with an initial grant of $1 million and a $500,000 a year annual operation fund (TCJ, 1998).
Sixth, on May 20, 1997, the tribal council began requiring education plans for each employee without a college degree. Salary increases and promotions were to be linked to completion of education goals. In addition, the tribal council made a commitment to pay for tuition, books, and fees for those employees pursuing their degrees. Also, each employee would be given time off from scheduled duties to attend classes for up to three hours of college credit per semester.
The tribal council’s continued support for higher education appears to have had a very positive effect on the American College Testing Program (ACT) scores at the Winnebago Public School. In the decade of the 1980s, with limited funds available, very few graduating seniors bothered to take the ACT test. When the casino opened, more and more of the graduating class opted to take the test. Nationally, the trend has been for scores to drop as the numbers of those tested increased, but the Winnebagos defied the trend. In fact, Figure 1 indicates that as the opportunities in higher education increased with casino money, so did the ACT Test scores (Casey, 1996).
Casino’s impact on crime
As noted earlier, crime at the reservation had reached epidemic proportions the year before the casino opened. Immediately after the casino opened, however, criminal activity began to subside. In 1991, the year before the casino opened, the Winnebago Tribe with its reservation population of about 1,200 Indians recorded 1,476 arrests. In 1992, the year the casino opened, there were only 492 arrests, a 67 percent decline from the year before (EKM, 1994).
The tribal consultant, EKM, reported declines in both adult and juvenile arrests. There was a 66 percent decline in adult arrests between 1991 and 1992 (from 1,333 adult arrests down to 452). By 1993, there was a drop of 75 percent from the 1991 numbers. In 1991, there were 143 juvenile arrests. In 1992, there were 40 juvenile arrests, a 72 percent decline.
Along with the overall decline in arrests, there was also a decline in the average daily population of Indians in jail. In 1991, the year before the casino opened, the average was 29.5. In 1992, the year the casino opened, the average daily population of Indians in jail was at 7.3, a 75 percent decline. Between 1991 and 1993, the average had dropped by 85 percent (down to an average of 4.46), according to EKM.
The average length of stay in jail of Indians also reflected a drop after the casino opened. In 1991, the year before the casino opened, the average was 7.23 days. In 1992, the year the casino opened, the average length of stay in jail dropped to 4.42 days, a 39 percent decline. In 1993, the average dropped to 3.08 days, a 57 percent decline from the high in 1991, according to EKM. This decline of time in jail has two explanations: first, after the casino opened, serious offenses declined. Second, offenders were opting to pay fines rather than serve time for their offenses.
Motor vehicle code violations on the reservation also dropped after the casino opened. In 1991, the year before the casino opened, there were 185 citations for driving under the influence (DUI). In 1992, the year the casino opened, DUIs dropped to 62, a 64 percent decline. Between 1991 and 1992, the number of moving violations dropped by 43 percent, from 639 to 366. The number of citations for driving with no operator’s license dropped by 68 percent (138 to 44), according to EMK.
When the Winnebagos first made contact with the French in the seventeenth century, they were one of the most powerful and respected tribes in the northern woodlands, occupying a substantial territory with vast natural resources stretching from south central Wisconsin into northern Illinois. By the early nineteenth century, the tribe had been nearly obliterated by diseases transmitted by infected Europeans it had welcomed to its country.
In 1832 and 1837, the United States systematically stripped the Winnebago of its territory through two coerced treaties. In 1840, the United States forcibly expelled the tribe from its ancestral homeland, beginning an odyssey of five forced removals through the states of Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Nebraska.
For 150 years the tribe languished in poverty and despair. Nevertheless, the tribe showed tremendous resiliency, particularly in the late twentieth century. With the opening of a tribal college in 1973, the tribe was able to upgrade the skills of its resident population. Unfortunately, job opportunities did not keep pace with the academic attainment of the Winnebagos, and unemployment rates at the reservation remained between 60 and 80 percent.
In 1992, the tribe built a casino. With the opening of the casino and the availability of a highly educated and skilled Indian population, the Winnebago Tribe was able to significantly reduce unemployment. Education remains a high priority for the Winnebagos’ casino revenues. The tribe has dedicated millions of dollars to upgrading and modernizing its entire education system from Headstart through college.
A collateral effect of the casino has been a decrease in crime. With the opening of the casino and increased job opportunities at the reservation, arrests have declined, along with the number of people jailed and the amount of time spent in jail.
In conclusion, the tribe may never attain the prestige and glory that it had prior to the arrival of Europeans in this hemisphere. However, the Winnebago Tribe has emerged like a great phoenix to claim its share of the American Dream.
Milo Colton received B.A, M.P.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Colorado and a J.D. degree from the University of Iowa. He is a former executive director of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. He also taught college classes at both the Winnebago and Omaha Indian Reservations. He is currently an attorney, teaching legal studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Most of the data for this article were collected during the period immediately before and after the casino’s opening, when the author served as executive director of the tribe.
Bass, Vincent. (1998, November 21). Testimony submitted to the National Gambling Impact Study Commission on behalf of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. Winnebago Indian News, p. 3.
Casey, Mark. (1996, April 27). Our children are improving. Winnebago Indian News, p. 1.
EKM, Inc. (1994, January 31). Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska criminal justice facilities needs assessment.
Littlebeaver, Regina. (1998, July 18). All our eggs in one basket? No way!: The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska’s investment portfolio safe and secure”, Winnebago Indian News, p. 2.
Native American Rights Fund (1995, February). Briefing Document: Public Law 280 and retrocession affecting the Winnebago Indian Reservation, p. 31.
Tribal College Journal, X (2), 21.
Winnebago Indian News, (1995, December 9). Update on casino financial status, p. 4.
Winnebago Indian News, (1996, June 22). We want our own junior college, p. 2.
Winnebago Indian News, (1998, August 1). Per cap and clothing allowance, p. 1.
Winnebago Indian News, (1998 August 15). Ho-Chunk, Inc.’s mid year update, p. 4.
U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs. (1993). Indian Service Population and Labor Force Estimates.