When Michigan’s Native American tribes end up in the headlines, it often revolves around casinos. But there’s a lot more to the story. In Southwest Michigan, tribes are starting to inject their casino revenue into brand new businesses, like architecture and renewable energy.
Each of the three bands of Potawatomi Indians in Southwest Michigan have separate histories and leaders. But they all have a similar philosophy about the future. It’s what they call “Seven Generations.”
“We’re typically not looking at what we can do for ourselves right now," says Tony Day, the sergeant-at-arms for the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi. "But we’re looking seven generations down the road. To try to keep the momentum going and being bigger and better for future generations."
Day says the philosophy influences everything the tribe does: what it builds, what it buys, who it elects. And it’s why the tribe just formed its Waseyabeck economic development company. To take the money it makes at its Firekeepers Casino in Battle Creek and invest in new ventures that will prosper centuries down the line. Even if the casino doesn’t.
“The gaming industry changes. The rules can change with the federal government and the state," Day says. "I look at it like the stock market. If one market’s up, the other is down. You’re diversified. You’re always bringing in revenue.”
The first step in that diversification is solar panels. They’re the first non-casino business venture that the tribe has created, under the name Skasge Power. Currently the panels are still in the early stages, constantly getting tinkered with and upgraded. But a full solar array is already helping to power Firekeepers.
Plus, these aren’t your everyday solar panels. They follow the sun as it moves across the sky. And they actually absorb the sun’s thermal energy too, and use that to heat water. The business is still in the research phase, but Skasge Power General Manager Patrick Bullard can’t help but be excited at the potential.
“Indian Country is a huge market!" Bullard says. "We’re already developing technology that we can get into casinos and hotels, which use a ton of energy.”
Economic diversification like this isn’t necessarily new for Native American tribes. Alaska, in particular, has dozens of native businesses and corporations. But as more casinos have popped up in Michigan, it’s only been in the last decade that tribes and the state have made diversification a priority.
“Most tribal resources were concentrated in the gaming and government sides. The area where there was the greatest potential was the least resourced," says Terri Fitzpatrick, who worked for years as a tribal liaison with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. "I would say over the last four or five years, all of Michigan’s tribes have taken steps to create separate economic development entities and develop business activities.”
The approach for each tribe is a little different. The Nottawaseppi Huron Band is starting from the ground up with Skasge Power and looking into the construction business, as well.
The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, in Dowagiac, has used its Mno Bmadsen corporation as a kind of venture capital portfolio. It buys up existing businesses, puts money in and expands them.
The Gun Lake band, meanwhile, is only now just forming an economic development corporation. But being part of a tribe has its advantages. You can apply for state and federal grants. And because the Potawatomi philosophy is to think hundreds of years down the line, the focus isn’t necessarily on short-term profits.
“We’re not a corporation that’s going to pick up and move out of the country,” says John Shagonaby, the chair of the board for the Gun Lake Band of Potawatomi's economic development corporation. “I see a lot of corporations that can pick up and leave, and that’s something we’re just never going to do. Our home is here and that’s a way we’re going to make it the best for ourselves and our community.”
But diversification isn’t just about money. The Potawatomi's tragic history still sits in the back of many minds. Business is a way out.
Tony Day, from the Nottawaseppi Huron Band, drives me about four miles south of the tribe’s Pine Creek Reservation in Fulton. We pull over to the side of the road. In front of us is a 28-acre parcel of land, mostly empty. Just a small warehouse, a few trees and hill after hill of prairie.
The tribe has a vision for this place: a hub of tribal manufacturing. Day remembers when it was purchased.
"And as I’m walking to my car to call the chairman of our tribe to tell him I did win the bid, I looked up and I saw this sign here that says, 'The Removal of the Potawatomi Indians in 1840.' As I walk across the street and read this, it hit me that this was the where the federal government actually rounded the Potawatomi Indians up and marched them on the death march out west."
"So when I saw this sign, it kind brought tears to my eyes," Day says. "That this was something that was meant to be. And it was really a good feeling to know that a lot of bad things happened, now it’s actually a beginning of our tribe to do some great things in the future. And give back and move forward as a tribe.”
And ultimately that’s what he points to as the most valuable thing about the new ventures. Native Americans have fought for centuries to simply survive. With new businesses, they hope to prosper.