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Winnebago Tribe is responsibly pursuing casino plans
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Winnebago Tribe is responsibly pursuing casino plans

MIDLANDS VOICES

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I have watched enough negative political ads to know they should be taken with a grain of salt, but until recently I have never actually been the target of one, much less one that is purposely calculated to negatively play on our status as an Indian tribe.

I run Ho-Chunk Inc., a company owned by the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, with over 1,500 employees. We have partnered with a few of the horse tracks in Nebraska to form "Keep the Money in Nebraska." Our goal is to allow the voters of Nebraska to authorize casino-style gaming at our state's existing tracks. These gaming businesses will create jobs for Nebraskans, be regulated under Nebraska law and pay Nebraska taxes.

Our polling shows substantial support of our efforts. Therefore, we decided to keep our message simple and focus it on the approximately $400 million a year that leaks out of Nebraska to surrounding states each year. We expected some social arguments against gaming, but what has emerged from the opposition's camp resulted in open-mouthed dismay from us.

Our supposedly high-minded opponents bought a racially tinted political ad referring to our group as a "special interest" trying to pull off "the perfect heist." The ad said our initiative would allow "Indian casinos" in every county in Nebraska, even next to churches and schools, and that this is all an elaborate ruse to avoid paying state taxes. By the way, our economic impact study shows that we will pay approximately $65 million in state taxes per year, which would make us one of the largest taxpayers in the state overnight.

To be clear, tribal gaming in every county is impossible. Tribal gaming can be done only on tribal land, and federal law requires the state to sign off on any agreement to do tribal gaming. Further, in 1992 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the state can simply refuse to negotiate a deal, and that's exactly what Nebraska has done for the last 28 years.

I suppose I should have seen this coming. Several weeks ago, we got a copy of some troubling polling questions being done by our opponents, which strangely focused on our tribal status. My guess is that the poll showed the same thing we already know: A significant majority of Nebraskans support expanded gaming. However, this same poll probably also showed that people would easily be confused by changing the narrative to "Indian casinos."

Not long after the poll was completed, the governor, whose anti-gaming stance is well known, set the stage by trying to morph our "Indian" status into the issue. Despite the fact that our efforts have been completely focused on expanded gaming at Nebraska tracks, the governor released a letter on his official state website referring to the "Attempts to legalize Indian casino gambling are a perennial threat ..." The result was a calculated attempt spawned by scientific data collection, funded and fueled by our political leaders, to turn "Indians" into the bad guy.

As the CEO of a tribal company for 25 years, I have faced plenty of mild economic racism since we started. It never bothered me much because it was mostly just based on lack of perspective. However, there is big difference between lacking perspective on tribal issues and purposely engaging in a paid campaign to target "Indians" and portray us as liars and thieves. I am surprised the political ad did not end with a call to "circle the wagons." What is even more ironic is that our partners are known as the horsemen. The horsemen could easily be characterized as the "cowboys," but just like in the old spaghetti Westerns, it is the Indians who are portrayed as the bad guys.

It is 2020, the year where systemic racism has become a real topic. Given the national dialogue on race, overt racially tinted scare tactics are hard to stomach. We are a Nebraska company doing all the right things to help build up Nebraska. I cannot imagine this being done to a non-tribal business of our size and impact on the state's economy. But it is 2020 and we will just roll with it while we continue to push our positive message on keeping the money in Nebraska. I am going to bank on Nebraskans using their common sense to see right through these outdated tactics.

Lance Morgan is a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and the CEO of Ho-Chunk Inc. He is a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Harvard Law School.

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