Cranberries and new factories create jobs for Red Lake tribe

Minnesota State Roundup

Published January 1, 1999  | January 1999 issue

On the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians' reservation you will find one of Minnesota's first cranberry crops and a new plant for prefabricated homes and buildings, both examples of the tribe's recent economic development projects. "Our overall goal is to create a nation that will be self-sustaining," says Tribal Chairman Bobby Whitefeather.

With an unemployment rate of 65 percent, the tribe has plenty of available labor for private-sector jobs. Of those currently employed, most work for the school district or the state or tribal government. "One of our desires, is to get out of the business of employer," Whitefeather says.

Tribal government is facilitating investment in Red Lake's resources and finding markets for the tribe's products. Funding sources vary from nearby expanding businesses, such as Blackduck-based Anderson Fabrics, which plans to break ground on a $1.3 million window blind factory in the reservation town of Redby this spring, to grants from government agencies to the tribe's own tax-exempt bonds, which are funding the $4 million prefabricated building factory. Investors and banks are also interested in tribal projects. The tribe often uses a combination of funding sources, Whitefeather says. In addition, profits from gaming are used to subsidize business enterprises, three elementary schools and sanitation, health and elderly nutrition services.

One of Red Lake's primary markets is other tribes. For example, "products from the window blind factory would find a niche at casinos, hotels and motels at other reservations," says Ron Anderson, president of Anderson Fabrics. Homes and buildings are also in demand; the prefabricated building plant is already booked with one year of orders, Whitefeather says. Coordination among tribes can potentially encourage reservations to work more together, such as subcontracting specialty work to other tribes.

Plans for a $2.1 million training and child-care facility in Redby are under way to help tribal members succeed at jobs and move off public assistance. The facility will provide training in life and job skills, and post secondary education as well as child care to eligible recipients. As more businesses sprout up on Red Lake, opportunities will open for members to take on management roles. "When the tribe is ready to take over, they will manage operations at the window blind factory," Anderson says.

Of the tribe's 6,000 members living on the reservation, about 70 will eventually have full-time jobs at the prefabricated building factory. The window blind factory will employ about 30 people and a bottled water plant, which plans to break ground this spring, will employ about 15 people. The 30-acre cranberry bog should provide four to five full-time jobs and several part-time jobs, though the first crop won't be harvested for another two to three years.

Tribal government develops some of its new ideas from its annual economic summit, which includes resource people from various institutions and government agencies. The prefabricated building plant came from an idea at a summit four years ago, Whitefeather says.

Rob Grunewald