With Economic Engines Stalled By COVID-19, Wind River Faces An Uncertain Future
The largest employer in Fremont County isn't a school district or a hospital—it's the Northern Arapaho Tribe. Between the tribal government and its enterprises, they put more than 1,000 people to work.
"We're a very vital piece of this economy," said Business Councilmman Stephen Fast Horse.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench in that. First, it forced the tribe to close its flagship Wind River Hotel and Casino and two smaller gaming businesses. Then, oil and gas revenues went south.
"It's a double whammy for the tribes here in Wyoming, for the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho," he said. "Because those two sectors are the brunt of what we rely on to run our tribal government."
And the Eastern Shoshone could be in an even tougher position.
"Unfortunately for our casino, it's kind of been insult to injury," said Business Council Vice-Chairwoman Karen Snyder
She said that while the Shoshone Rose Casino is self-sustaining, the tribe hasn't yet paid off the loan that funded a $30 million expansion of the facility five years ago.
"So not only are we struggling to keep afloat with our loan, now we have closure," Snyder said.
The pandemic has cut off both tribes' primary sources of revenue. And unlike state and local governments, they don't have a tax base to fall back on.
According to Joseph Kalt with Harvard's Project on American Indian Economic Development, the budget crisis they're facing isn't unique.
"All across the country, we're seeing tribes either having to dip into some assets, rainy day funds, if they've been able to to build them up over the years, or going into debt," Kalt said. "So it's a really drastic situation. Because there's just been this abrupt cut off in the flow of funds."
Kalt said tribes have been running serious gaming operations since the 1970s, and that's allowed them to diversify their economies.
"As a result of that, we've seen a massive expansion across the country in the ability of tribes' governments to deliver the whole range of basic public services that we expect any city, county or state to provide," Kalt said.
Like the Northern Arapaho Tribe's clinic, where more than 3,000 people have been tested for COVID-19. And the Eastern Shoshone Tribal Health Department, which is running food and supply distributions throughout the reservation during the crisis.
But with the revenue stream cut off, those services are in trouble just when they're needed most.
"We run the risk essentially of reversing what's been about 30 years of slow but at least steady progress [in reservation economies]," Kalt said
And the impact will have ripple effects far beyond the reservation. Kalt's research models suggest that tribal economic development generates around $12 million a year in indirect revenue to the state of Wyoming.
"Many regions—Riverton Wyoming, for example—depend a great deal on the money that's flowing in through that community because of the presence of the tribe, its government, its enterprises," Kalt said. "So we would really be worried about places like that suffering a long, drawn out recession in their economies."
To make matters worse, tribes and tribal businesses were initially shut out of the federal paycheck protection program, which provides potentially forgivable loans to businesses impacted by the pandemic.
Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico was among lawmakers who pressured the Small Business Administration to include them in round two of the program.
"Tribal gaming enterprises are some of the biggest employers [in Native communities]. They fund essential services in Indian Country, things like healthcare, public safety, law enforcement. Unfortunately, it took the SBA far too long to make this right," Udall said.
Council Vice-Chairwoman Snyder said the Eastern Shoshone were among those tribes who were initially denied loans. That led to lay-offs for casino employees, and other consequences for government workers.
"We've had to look at some potential furloughs, we've had reduced hours for some of our tribal workers. So again, that means interruption of our tribal services," Snyder said.
In early May, the tribe and its casino finally received loans from the Small Business Administration.
"And so that to me, initially, would be used to make the tribe whole again as far as our operations," Snyder said.
And after weeks of back-and-forth, some aid from the massive federal relief package known as the CARES Act has finally reached tribal governments, including the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes.
But due to pending lawsuits about how that $8 billion tribal stabilization fund should be divided up, the treasury department has only released 60 percent of the money.
Northern Arapaho councilman Fast Horse said all of this puts tribes at an early disadvantage.
"And this is the trying part for tribes, that we're always at the last of the line," he said.
It's not yet clear how much federal aid the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes received, but they're both hoping it's enough to help them bounce back.
Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Savannah is a Report For America corps member.