Red Cliff’s impact reaches far and wide as tribes remain leading employers across the state
Long before the flashing lights, jackpot winners and all-you-can-eat buffets became the norm for visitors to the Red Cliff Chippewa Indian Reservation, things were a lot quieter. It was hard to find anyone other than people local to the reservation or nearby communities. Two of the tribe’s main economic generators at the time were the marina and museum. Surrounded by some of the most pristine and picturesque natural beauty, sat an impoverished, yet determined community.
“Back then, things were different,” says Red Cliff Tribal Chairman Bryan Bainbridge. “Indian people aren’t born into poverty – they are strategically placed within the poverty. It’s socioeconomics used as a weapon,” says the second year Chairman.
Well known for its commercial fishing industry, Red Cliff maintains its “Big Lake” roots while progressing into the modern world.
Not one to mince words, Bainbridge is careful to balance the tribe’s culture and traditions with the 21st century needs of his people.
“Many people think we’re closed-minded and stuck in time. They picture Indian people as some ancient artifact to be studied. But if you look at our community, you’ll see a dynamic mix of progress, culture and respect for the environment,” says Bainbridge.
The tribe not only manages its relatively new Legendary Waters Resort & Casino and Marina, it also operates countless social programs, government operations, law enforcement center, tribal court, Early Childhood Center, fish hatchery and the new Red Cliff Community Health Center – all of which are open to the public.
With the proliferation of casino gaming in the late 80s and early 90s, the tribe saw its social and economic influence within the region grow. The influx of new visitors and revenue to the reservation provided real opportunities for tribal members and others to increase their standard of living.
The Red Cliff Chairman is quick to point out that “Almost 100 percent of our programmatic funds are non-discretionary, meaning the money is earmarked specifically for those programs and services. Even though we manage a multi-million dollar operating budget, we still have many unmet needs.”
“It’s rarely reported in the media the level of economic impact tribes across the state have had on not only our own communities, but the neighboring communities as well,” said Red Cliff Vice Chairman Nathan Gordon.
“You won’t read about how many jobs we’ve provided to the surrounding communities but you will read about all the negative social issues. But those issues aren’t isolated just to the reservation – they occur in every community,” adds Gordon.
The Red Cliff Tribe is indicative of the other tribes in Wisconsin: a small community that is the largest employer in the county in which it is located.
“We currently have right around 300 employees and our tribal payroll, not including the casino, is very close to $350,000 every two weeks,” said Bainbridge. “Add another $40,000 or $50,00 each week from our gaming payroll and you can see the tremendous impact we have for being such a small community,” says Bainbridge, adding that the casino employs right around 100 people year-round and up to 200 at the peak of the busy season.
That impact goes well beyond the reservation boundaries. An argument can be made that the tribe drives not only its own economy but the regional economy as well.
“You take that and pair it with the tax impact we have within the state, you’re looking at ‘little’ Red Cliff being a big player in the game,” adds Bainbridge.
Aside from the Legendary Waters gaming, entertainment and marina complex, the tribe’s new community health center not only employs both Native and non-Native people, it also serves both populations – much to the surprise of neighboring communities.
“All to often people from Bayfield or Washburn or places elsewhere believe they aren’t eligible to receive services from our health center, but that’s definitely not the case,” says Gordon.
“Our community health center is a state-of-the-art facility that offers the best healthcare in the north woods and is open to the public,” says Bainbridge. “They accept most forms of insurance, including medical assistance or Badger Care and are constantly adding new services and programming.”
In addition to the health center, the tribe recently opened an alcohol and drug abuse counseling center which has been rebranded as the Mishomis Wellness Center. The outpatient AODA program offers day treatment, one-on-one counseling and intensive therapy for mental health and other behavioral issues. Noteworthy is the tribe’s partnership with Northlakes Community Clinic, which provides shared office space. This allows the tribe to offer mental health and substance abuse therapy services to people living in Washburn.
From an environmental standpoint, the Red Cliff Tribe, like other tribes, is a leading force in natural resource management and preservation. The tribe’s Treaty Natural Resources Division monitors all things environmental – from fishing and fish populations; to the annual deer harvest; to invasive plant and animal species; to air, water and soil quality. The tribe operates its own fish hatchery where it raises various species of fish. The hatchery crew works year round to ensure a successful rearing and release season. This is important as the tribe co-manages the Lake Superior fishery within Wisconsin boundary waters through a cooperative agreement with the state of Wisconsin and both the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and Keweenaw Bay Indian Community in Michigan. Outside of the state, Red Cliff also co-manages the Lake Superior fishery in Michigan boundary waters through a similar agreement with the state of Michigan and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.
“I’m not sure people realize how complex we are. We play an important role in the northern Wisconsin landscape. We have systems in place that reflect our culture and own unique way of doing things,” said Bainbridge. “Red Cliff is a sovereign nation with a highly functioning government comprised of nine elected officials – including the chairman position – all serving under our own constitution and bylaws. Along with the tribal council, the government is comprised of many boards and committees, a law enforcement arm and our own judiciary. The tribe is responsible for its own members and the tribal court establishes a venue in which members can be heard,” he added.
Another major entity the tribe owns and operates is the Red Cliff Chippewa Housing Authority, which manages tribally built homes. Many people as well as tribal members live on the reservation. Another recent addition to the community was the New Hope supportive housing project- which serves individuals such as veterans or those with AODA or other health issues – along with two construction projects that will rehabilitate the current housing on the reservation. All three of these project were mutli-million dollar projects that were instrumental in giving opportunities to local contractors, which in turn gives those businesses the ability to grow the local economy. This stimulates the job market, providing employment to tribal members and individuals from surrounding communities.
The tribe, in its quest to diversify its business holdings, has rejuvenated their Red Cliff Business Development Corporation. The “BDC” as it has come to be known, hired a CEO this past summer to help jump-start the effort. The BDC looks to seek out and develop new business opportunities while strengthening the tribe’s existing for-profit business entities. The main goal of the BDC is to create additional revenue streams for the tribe while promoting entrepreneurship among community members. “We are ultimately striving to attain a level of self-sufficiency for the tribe and among our tribal members,” offered Bainbridge.
“We have an education department, youth center, campground and community garden,” shares Bainbridge. “Again, many of these program offerings are extended to our non-member friends, relatives and neighbors.”
At a time when there is so much divisiveness, the Red Cliff are doing their part to bridge the cultural and economic divide.
“There’s no better place to work, live or play, than Red Cliff,” says Bainbridge. “I don’t think Indian people get the credit we’re due. We have so much to offer and do so much for the surrounding communities that I think back to the stories of the days when our families struggled to make it with minimal resources. We’ve always persevered and overcome – not only to help ourselves but to help others along the way as well. I appreciate those days more so now because it offers perspective on how far we’ve come and where we have yet to go.”
*This is part of an ongoing series that looks at the impact the Red Cliff Tribe and other tribes, have within the state and across the region.