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Despite casinos, reservations still plagued by high unemployment

Why do thousands of Indians remain unemployed even while their tribes run casinos?

Second of five installments. You can read the whole series here.

It is easy to understand why so many workers at the Mystic Lake Casino and Hotel complex are non-Indian. If you were a multi-millionaire – as many of the casino’s owners reportedly are – would you wait tables? Push a broom? Clean hotel rooms?

In fact, the Indian tribe that owns the casino, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, is so small that its members couldn’t fill all of the jobs at the sprawling entertainment complex even if every man, woman and child wanted to work there.

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With an annual payroll exceeding $110 million, the tribe calls itself the largest employer in Scott County, providing jobs for about 1,000 more workers than the next four employers combined. (The tribe doesn’t reveal its own membership numbers, but by most estimates it’s close to 500.)

The tribe’s late chairman, Stanley R. Crooks, told the New York Times that the tribe has a “99.2 percent unemployment rate . . . entirely voluntary.”

OK. That explains the job situation at Mystic Lake and a few other tribal-run casinos near the Twin Cities.

Up north, though, where you find the state’s most populous reservations, thousands of Indians remain unemployed even while their tribes run casinos. And they do not have the luxury of hefty casino payments to justify staying home from work. Many of their families still are desperately poor. 

How does that square with a key argument made 20 years ago for establishing casinos in the first place? They were to spur economic development on and near reservations. By extension, they were to grow jobs where they were sorely needed. A related goal was to help Indians become more self-sufficient.

Did the strategy fail?

Initial scouting told my colleague Steve Date and me that the answer was not going to be a clear yes or no. What’s more, we would have to search for the answer in a veritable fog of different data sets, conflicting views and explanations we hadn’t understood until we started asking the questions.

Isolation and family duty

At the White Earth Nation in northwestern Minnesota, tribal members live in rural isolation, even from each other and from their Shooting Star Casino. It’s a 75-mile round trip drive from some reservation villages to the casino, White Earth Tribal Council Member Terry Tibbetts told Steve. Not so bad in summer months, maybe. But it’s a daunting commute in winter when tree-lined roads are icy. And it isn’t unusual to see temperatures fall deep into sub-zero territory.

The best way to appreciate Tibbetts’ full explanation is to catch it here in Steve’s video: 

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Meanwhile, I’ll take a stab at summarizing it.

Keep the distance factor in mind while you consider another reality at White Earth and, for that matter, in Minnesota’s non-Indian communities as well: Single parents head a good share of the families.

“By the time you pay a babysitter, put $25 worth of gas in your car and you get your insurance paid for … you’re probably making $5,” Tibbetts said.

Casinos on Minnesota ReservationsThe casino pays competitive wages for the region, Tibbetts said. On average, workers get $10.83 an hour.

Even so, he said, “It’s very hard to keep our people employed.”

He estimated that just over half of the casino’s 1,200 employees are Native American. In some other Minnesota casinos, a far smaller portion of the jobs are held by Indians.

A darker factor: addiction

Chemical dependency problems pose yet another reason Indians don’t hold more of the casino jobs.

“Drug testing is a huge one,” Tibbetts said.

A job applicant who scores positive on a urine test must stay clean for 30 days and test again, he said. And one positive test result sets an employee up for mandatory repeated testing during a year.

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“No way are we encouraging or condoning drug use among our employees,” he said. “They have got to learn to lay off this stuff and be family people working for their own living.”

New work ethic

Robert Shimek, a White Earth community member, stressed that addiction problems should be considered separately from the evaluation of casinos as job creators.

“We can talk about drugs, we can talk about all of that,” Shimek said. “Those things were very much here before the casino happened. And I can guarantee you that if the casino closed today – lock the doors, send everybody home – we would still have those problems tomorrow and five years from now.”

Not only have casinos created jobs, Shimek said, but also fostered a new work ethic in people on the reservation.

“They have learned how to go to a job, keep a job, thrive in a job, grow in a job and set some goals for the future,” he said. “We cannot discount that.”

Many entry-level casino employees have gone on to better jobs working in tribal or county administration, he said.

“A lot of them take their work ethic back to starting a job at the casino,” he said. “Many of them had to go through it two or three times or four times or more. But at the end of the day we are a lot better off.”

Terry Tibbetts
MinnPost photo by Steve DateWhite Earth Tribal Council Member Terry Tibbetts credits casinos as the best job creators tribes have invented so far.

Putting everything together, here is the upshot: White Earth’s unemployment rate runs about 43 percent, he said, even while the tribe creates jobs and runs aggressive education and job-training programs.

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Indeed, White Earth isn’t giving up on people who’ve lost five or more casino jobs.

They get another chance through the Shooting Star Re-Entry Program. Robert Goodwin coordinates the program with support from casino revenues and a commission created to help those fallen employees known as “R5 people.”

Goodwin told Steve that the commission screens applicants, looking at factors such as child welfare, public assistance and life stability. Those who pass the screening get new jobs where they are shadowed on the casino floor by commission members for a probationary period.

“Why do people still want these jobs after failing five times?” Steve asked.

“Actually, there isn’t much else up here for jobs,” Goodwin replied.

Most don’t want to look for off-reservation jobs because they don’t feel comfortable leaving, he said. On the reservation, though, they’re under a lot of peer pressure to work at something.

Unemployment and jobs too

Despite the high unemployment rate, Tibbetts credits casinos as the best job creators tribes have invented so far. Pre-casino unemployment on the reservation ran higher than 70 percent, he said, so the rate has been cut nearly in half.

A cut of that magnitude doesn’t come easily in communities where some families have existed for generations without steady work but survived instead with steady dependence on government programs.

It means many individuals had to learn from scratch the complex skills of applying for a job and then holding it. They had to master the habits of reporting for work on time and doing so every day, staying clean and sober and keeping a civil demeanor even toward supervisors and colleagues they dislike. They had to manage a paycheck and a household budget.

Red Lake shore
MinnPost photo by Steve DateOn the Red Lake reservation, one of the state’s largest, the unemployment rate was a discouraging 21.9 percent.

In other words, the White Earth Nation may not be a land of millionaires, but it does have several hundred more good, steady jobs than it had 20 years ago – thanks to the casino. Above all, it has fostered hundreds more employable and responsible members. The same is true on most other Minnesota reservations; unemployment remains too high, but it generally is lower than in pre-casino days. 

We warned you that this would not be a simple analysis with straightforward yes or no findings!

Dizzying data

Indian unemployment rates are gathered and reported with a dizzying array of approaches. And all of them have to be taken with a degree of skepticism. Beyond the fact that a few hundred casino-wealthy Indians are voluntarily “unemployed,” thousands of others have given up on the work force and dropped out. Still others make do in local economies where labor could be traded for basic necessities.

While Steve crisscrossed the state talking with tribal leaders and members, I sat down to dig through reports from three different federal agencies.

Here’s what I found in the U.S. Census numbers for Minnesota: The unemployment rate was 10.7 percent for American Indian adults, compared with 6.4 percent for all Minnesota adults, according to surveys conducted between 2006 and 2010. On the Red Lake reservation, one of the state’s largest, the rate was a discouraging 21.9 percent.

What’s more, 37 percent of the state’s Indians were not in the labor force at all, compared with 29 percent of all Minnesotans.

Employment on Minnesota’s largest reservations



(Populations 16 and over)












Percent Unemployed

Percent not in the labor force

Bois Forte







Fond du Lac







Leech Lake







Mille Lacs







Red Lake







White Earth













All Minnesotans






Source: U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey 2006-2010

To double-check that finding, I combed through estimates reported by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The BIA’s numbers didn’t match the Census numbers, but they pointed in the same direction. If anything, the BIA painted a bleaker picture, reporting higher unemployment rates on some reservations.

Next, I clicked through the most recent reports from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. There, I learned that every county in what is considered Minnesota’s Indian Country – the counties including the big reservations of White Earth, Mille Lacs, Red Lake, Fond du Lac and Leech Lake – suffered deeper unemployment through the Great Recession than the state as a whole. And unemployment remained higher in those counties as recently as June this year.

Different data sets. Similar conclusions: Even after 20 years of hiring at tribal-run casinos, an American Indian in Minnesota is far more likely to go jobless than a non-Indian.

Could have been worse

Data analysis only goes so far, though.

Steve went out of his way to talk with Indians who were tough-minded casino observers, beginning with Anton Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe language at Bemidji State University and a noted author of books on Ojibwe history and language.

Treuer is highly critical of some aspects of casino gambling. But he joined others in applauding casinos for reducing the ranks of the unemployed on reservations.

“There is no doubt that casinos have created jobs in Indian Country and done something to help mitigate the depth and breadth of poverty,” Treuer said.

(Treuer had more to say on the subject, and you can catch it all here in Steve’s video clip:)

So unemployment persists, as does poverty, at levels most of us would agree are too high.

But both almost surely would have been much worse without casinos.

Cracking hard-core unemployment

Just south of Cass Lake, Steve stopped to see Gary Frazer. He’s the executive director of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, which consists of six of the state’s largest Indian bands. The log headquarters building couldn’t be more emblematic of Minnesota’s northern woods. And it sits in the heart of Indian Country.

“His office view is of the forest, and the interior of his office has a north woods cabin kind of theme — wildlife art, with a heavy emphasis on duck hunting,” Steve told me.

Frazer has held his leadership post since 1988. He also grew up in Cass Lake, so he understands the area and the historic relationships between Indians and non-Indians.

Frazer wore a golf shirt and khaki shorts for his meeting with Steve, looking as much like a resort-town Kiwanis or Chamber of Commerce member as the chief executive of an organization representing tens of thousands of Indians with sometimes competing interests. The giveaway for Steve, though, was Frazer’s bent for diplomacy.

“He speaks in a measured, diplomatic manner, avoiding criticism or comparisons of individual tribal governments,” Steve said.

(You can see it for yourself here in Steve’s video:)

Casinos are by far the biggest employer on every reservation, Frazer told Steve.

To appreciate their impact, you have to look beyond the unemployment rates and see who is reporting for work.

Frazer knows a lot of the faces very well. He grew up with them. He also knows that many of them would have been jobless in the pre-casino days.

“What gaming has done for the economies is helped a lot of people get jobs that normally wouldn’t have jobs,” Frazer said. “I grew up on the Leech Lake reservation, went to school in Cass Lake, and a lot of the guys that I went to school with never got jobs. They hung around. They worked part-time in the woods. They picked wild rice, pine cones whatever they could.”

Gary Frazer
MinnPost photo by Steve DateGary Frazer

Not only are those old classmates now clocking in for eight-hour shifts. Some even are advancing into management positions, Frazer said.

But how could he explain the many tribal members who didn’t land casino jobs?

For that question, Frazer drew examples from his own family.

“A lot of people just aren’t cut out for those casino jobs,” he said. “My dad was a … carpenter. My brother is a carpenter. That is the job they’ve done all of their lives. They are not prepared to go sit in a casino atmosphere for eight to 10 hours a day.”

We all know that the burst of the housing bubble in 2008 threw a lot of carpenters and other construction workers out of their jobs. That was true both on and off the reservations.

The biggest reason non-Indians found casino jobs while unemployment rates remain high on reservations, Frazer said, “is the fact that a lot of people just don’t work those jobs or can’t work those jobs.”

The view across generations

For the sake of thoroughness, Steve pressed further east to talk with Karen Diver, chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. That band’s reservation is near Duluth. It operates the Fond du Luth Casino as well as the Black Bear Casino Resort and Golf Course on I-35 near Cloquet.

Twenty years of casino ownership might seem like a long time – indeed, time enough for a new generation to emerge with new ambitious and dreams.

Think about it though. Social change rarely happens fast or easy.

“Having access to a job doesn’t necessarily cure those things that are keeping people from their own self-determination,” Diver said. “When you have multiple generations in one family who have suffered hardship and all of the resulting social ills that come from poverty and oppression, it is really going to take more than one generation to make them better.”

Diver had more to say about growing up Indian in an earlier Minnesota, about oppression in the public schools and the hurt that was internalized and passed along the generations with devastating effect. You really need to hear that piece in her words. And you can, by watching Steve’s video:

Formerly jobless; now writing the paychecks

Now, though, the job tables have turned. And white people are going to Indians to seek paychecks. Diver talked about that remarkable experience with considerable pride.

With 2,200 employees, the formerly impoverished Fond du Lac Band now is one of the largest employers in St. Louis County.

“We are bigger than Minnesota Power, than any of the paper plants, than the University of Minnesota [Duluth], than St. Louis County [administration and services],” Diver said. “Not only are we a major regional employer. We provide a lot of payroll revenue in Northeastern Minnesota.”

The pride in that new standing is echoed from reservation to reservation.

Collectively, tribal gaming and tribal governments employed 20,550 workers statewide in 2007 and maintained a $576 million payroll, according to the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association. Of those employees, 27 percent are Native American, according to a study done for the Gaming Association.

The tribes also purchased $539 million in goods and services and invested $329 million in capital projects that created even more jobs.

More than three-fourths of the new jobs were in rural Minnesota where they were sorely needed.

Further, casino workers in Minnesota were more likely to get health-care benefits, retirement plans, sick leave, educational assistance, child care support and life and disability insurance, the association reported.

This dramatic development leads to other, related dimensions of the casino story in Minnesota: Indian tribes leveraging casino profits not only into jobs but also into prospects for the future beginning with education. Are tribes making use of their new – and, possibly fleeting — opportunities to secure their children’s future by advancing their educations?

You can explore that question when MinnPost publishes the next installment in this series.