"My own mother says I'm a necessary evil, the corporate Indian."
it started as a simple business matter: The people needed jobs and nobody was providing them. Nothing is simple though, when your community is wilting under endemic poverty, when your ancestors left their footprints on forced removals from Wisconsin to Iowa to Minnesota to South Dakota to Nebraska, when your people have few options outside the federal government, when tribal politicians pull the strings on the local economy, and when the only available start-up funds come one pull of a handle, one rake of the chips, at a time. Or is it? Can a driven visionary entrepreneur change the fate of his people? In the case of Lance Morgan, the answer is yes.
"We've done it," says Morgan, "and other tribes have just as much talent as the Winnebagos, but they don't have the model...yet." The model is Ho-Chunk Inc., the $100 million tribe-owned corporation that employs 355 people in a variety of businesses including housing construction, hotels, convenience stores, e-commerce hot spot Allnative.com, Web design, tobacco distribution, community development, and Indianz.com, a news site for all things Native American. After graduating from Harvard Law School and spending two unhappy years at a corporate firm in Minneapolis, Morgan returned to the Winnebago reservation in 1995 to start Ho-Chunk with $8 million in seed money from a casino (although the company hasn't taken a nickel of gaming money since). "I don't think much of gaming," says Morgan, "but it was a means to an end."
The idea is no less than to create an economy, and it wouldn't have taken off if Morgan hadn't convinced the tribal council to break with the norm and allow Ho-Chunk to operate somewhat autonomously. (Ho-Chunk and the Winnebago tribal council meet quarterly and are partners in a business whose model is being studied and adopted by tribes across the country.) Morgan is currently embedded in an ambitious project to literally build a better community from the ground up. Houses and businesses are being erected in Ho-Chunk Village, a new urbanism/small town combination created to replace dilapidated, random government housing and where, Morgan says, "we can have a warm, safe place to raise a family, like any other neighborhood, except nicer and everyone will be brown."
Like most go-getters, Morgan, 35, has time for work and family and not much else--Cornhuskers football is one of his few diversions from building a 21st-century economic model for Indian peoples nationwide who have been shut out of the entrepreneurial arena. "We've taken control of our destiny, gotten a taste of independence, and don't plan on giving it up," says Morgan. "Government-led economies have been a total failure. I refuse to believe the Winnebagos are Karl Marx's last hope."
Ho-Chunk (which loosely translates to "the people") has spoken.--Patrick J. Sauer
Patrick J. Sauer is a staff writer.