BELCOURT, N.D. - As Sam LaRocque drove his red pickup around the pastures of his family’s cattle ranch, he talked about life in seemingly the only area of North Dakota where opportunity is hard to come by.
The Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation has the highest unemployment rate in North Dakota, at about 69 percent, according to tribal officials. In contrast to the rest of the state, which is thriving with less than 3 percent unemployment, poverty is common at Turtle Mountain, in Rolette County, about 170 miles northwest of Grand Forks near the Canadian border.
But Turtle Mountain is working to catch up with the rest of North Dakota.
More than $6 million in federal grants has been awarded to the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa the past two years for economic development and other needs. The tribe also recently has contracted with a manufacturing company to bring more jobs, housing and revenue to the reservation, which is home to LaRocque and about 18,000 of the tribe’s 36,000 members.
Turtle Mountain Community College also has received significant federal grant funds, and there are several other projects in the works, including an Oil Patch casino.
“I just think we’re moving forward,” said tribal Chairman Richard McCloud. “It’s going to help a lot of people.”
Despite the problems at Turtle Mountain, 56-year-old LaRocque described a peaceful life growing up on the reservation and starting his own family there.
His family’s ranch is one of the few farms and ranches owned by members of the tribe, he said. In addition to raising cattle, LaRocque and his wife both have full-time jobs with the tribal government in Belcourt.
LaRocque maintains the ranch more out of tradition than out of necessity, he said. “It kind of gets in your blood. You like having the animals,” he said. “Some years, it makes you next to nothing, but you keep it going.”
The top employer in Belcourt, which is the government center of the reservation, is the Turtle Mountain Community School System, employing about 470 people, according to the city of Belcourt’s website.
Other major employers are the tribal government, employing about 450 people, and the Sky Dancer Hotel and Casino, employing 415 people.
Compared with other North Dakota reservations, Turtle Mountain’s economy most starkly contrasts with the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, which is located in the Oil Patch and is home of the Three Affiliated Tribes.
According to the 2012 U.S. census, New Town on the Fort Berthold reservation had 16 percent of its residents living below the poverty level, compared with 41 percent in Belcourt.
Comparable unemployment statistics for each entire reservation were not readily available.
The Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Indian reservations appear closer to Turtle Mountain economically, as the census shows cities on those reservations with high poverty levels.
To boost Turtle Mountain’s employment rate, the tribe recently reached a two-year contract with a manufacturing company, U.S. Containers and Housing Inc. The tribe hopes the business eventually could bring 2,000 jobs to the reservation, McCloud said.
The company is restoring an old manufacturing facility in Belcourt with the goal of bringing 300 new jobs to the reservation by next summer, McCloud said. If the company is successful in creating 2,000 jobs, McCloud said he’ll likely recruit for additional workers in surrounding counties.
The manufacturing contract also should provide the reservation with much-needed housing because the company will make module homes to be sold at Turtle Mountain and throughout North Dakota, including on other reservations, McCloud said.
“We have such a housing shortage,” he said. “We may have five families living in one dwelling. I’ve had people tell me that their kids or grandkids live with them, children that sleep in the tub, children sleep in the basement, because we don’t have enough housing.”
LaRocque grew up on the reservation in a family of nine children. “When we grew up, we were poor,” he said.
Driving through the pasture, he stopped his pickup at the top of a hill. He said he often likes driving up there for the view of Belcourt and the areas surrounding it. “It’s beautiful,” he said.
Beyond LaRocque’s cattle and horses, an old steam threshing machine sat in the distance, and LaRocque recalled his parents buying a steam thresher for their family farm when he was a child. He smiled as he recalled how he and his siblings had thought the old-fashioned harvesting machine was brand-new technology, unaware that farms with more money were able to afford combines for harvesting grain.
LaRocque also pointed toward a small patch of trees where the town of Thorne once stood outside of Belcourt. “It used to be kind of a hopping little town,” he said.
But Thorne eventually dried up economically, LaRocque said. There wasn’t a grain elevator or railroad tracks running through the town, so “there was nothing to sustain it,” he said. Maybe just one family lives there now, LaRocque said.
While Belcourt is the only town on the Turtle Mountain reservation, the tribe’s members also make up a large portion of the population in surrounding Rolette County towns, including Dunseith, Rolla and St. John.
Some federal grants awarded to the tribe also are being put toward programs boosting the economy and quality of life in those surrounding towns, said Daniell Breland, director of the tribe’s Personal Responsibility Education Program, known as the PREP program.
Grants have been awarded for many different needs, including public safety, health services, education, suicide prevention and drug prevention, among others. The tribe applies for these grants and must follow regulations to maintain the grant funding, McCloud said.
U.S. Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and John Hoeven, R-N.D., both have expressed support for the federal funding awarded to Turtle Mountain.
“Anything that we can do to build up more economic development on our reservations is critical,” said Heitkamp, who recently visited the reservation with Julian Castro, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, in regard to the housing shortage.
In addition to applying for grants, another economic project McCloud is working on is a casino planned on Turtle Mountain tribal land in Trenton, N.D. - about 13 miles west of the oil boomtown of Williston. The idea came after multiple attempts by Turtle Mountain officials to get federal and state government permission for an off-reservation casino in Grand Forks.
“With revenue like that (from the casino), I can create more economic development, provide more housing,” McCloud said.
The tribe broke ground on the Trenton casino last week, and McCloud said he expects construction to be complete in about 18 to 20 months. Because the casino is on tribal land, the construction is regulated by Turtle Mountain’s government, he said.
The casino will have about 700 gaming machines, a 125-room hotel, conference rooms, a gift shop, a buffet and other amenities, McCloud said.
Tribal officials also have their eyes on making Turtle Mountain a national Promise Zone, part of a community and economic development initiative started by President Barack Obama in 2013, McCloud said. That would make it easier for the tribe to secure more federal grants for improvement, he said.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development website, Promise Zones must be high-poverty urban, rural or tribal communities. The heightened federal attention to these areas includes a federal liaison designated to each community to assist local leaders in navigating federal programs.
The first round of Promise Zones, designated in January of this year, included urban neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, as well as the Choctaw Nation reservation in southeast Oklahoma, according to HUD.
McCloud said he will submit a Promise Zone application in 2015.
Another part of economic development at Turtle Mountain is combating other problems, such as alcoholism and domestic violence, McCloud said.
“When someone has a home, someone has a job, they have more pride in themselves. You’ll see domestic abuse, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, you’ll see all of that going down.”
The PREP program, for example, received more than $350,000 in federal grants the past two years and aims to address those problems through weekly health classes at schools in Belcourt and Dunseith, Breland said.
Teen pregnancy is particularly a major problem on the reservation, she said. In Rolette County, there was a 17.5 percent teen pregnancy rate in 2012, according to most recent Kids Count statistics.
“A lot of people are saying the education part needs to go through the parents, but I believe it’s too late for some of the parents,” she said. “I believe if you do want to make a change, it’s got to start young.”
JaNae Boswell, a teacher at Turtle Mountain Community High School in Belcourt, said she has seen how the PREP program and other grant-funded education initiatives have started to benefit students.
Turtle Mountain still has a 37 percent high school dropout rate, according to Shelley Swenson, the tribe’s grant writer.
But Boswell, 24, grew up in Belcourt and said the high school has changed drastically from when she was a student there.
“They have a lot more for the high school students now that they didn’t have when I was here,” she said. For example, there now are two community youth centers in Belcourt where children can be involved in extracurricular activities. “A lot of kids are focusing on their futures now instead of alcohol. The students, they’re turning their lives around I think.”
These problems are a reason LaRocque is grateful he grew up on his family’s ranch. Working on the ranch helped him and his brothers build responsibility, he said, and it’s the same for his sons. “It always gives you something to do,” he said.
LaRocque spoke proudly of his five sons, all in their 20s and one in his 30s, pursuing education, including one who wants to study engineering.
To LaRocque and his wife, education is key, he said. “There’s not a lot of opportunity for a lot of things out here, so either you have to move out or get something, get some education in some way,” he said.
LaRocque’s parents encouraged all of their children to pursue education, so he went to University of Mary in Bismarck for his bachelor’s degree and University of South Dakota in Vermillion for his master’s. Eight of the nine children in LaRocque’s family have a bachelor’s degree and three have a master’s, he said.
“Education was important to our parents. It’s an avenue to a better life,” he said.
LeeAnn Lafromboise holds the same philosophy, which is why she sent her 20-year-old daughter to study at UND in Grand Forks.
“I just wanted her to get away,” said Lafromboise, who has lived on the reservation her entire life. “There’s not a lot here.”
Lafromboise works with unemployed people through her job at the Workforce Investment Act office in Belcourt, and she said she sees a lot of people struggling with the decision to leave their family, despite the many job openings in other parts of North Dakota, away from Turtle Mountain.
“Native American people are really family-oriented,” Lafromboise said. “Here, the unemployment rate is high, but you have family here, too.”
Boswell agreed that it’s important to leave the reservation for education - which she also did for her bachelor’s degree - but she also said it’s important for people to come back to work on the reservation and help the tribe, like she is doing as a high school teacher.
Comparing the class of students she graduated with to the students she teaches, she said, “There are a lot more students now that will leave, but there are a lot more of those students that will come back after they get those degrees.”
She used herself and her friends LaRocque and his wife, Twila Jerome, as examples of people who have returned home to the close-knit community after leaving for college.
When LaRocque finished his drive through the pasture, he drove to his house where Jerome and Boswell were chatting.
Jerome works as director of the tribal government’s grant office, and she reiterated the importance of the federal grants behind the improvements slowly happening at Turtle Mountain.
“The economic impact of these grants is going to be substantial,” she said.
LaRocque also believes the tribal government is laying a good groundwork for the future.
“I think we’re on the right track,” he said. “That is our hope, and that is the beginning for a better life for our kids and the next generation. We have to have an economic system where after they get an education, they can come back and get a job and afford a home.”
Some federal grants received by Turtle Mountain tribe in 2013 and 2014:
- $2.2 million from the U.S. Department of Justice for public safety assistance.
- $2.8 million from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for programs such as suicide prevention, sex education and health classes.
- $950,000 from federal Indian Health Services for prevention of suicide, diabetes and meth use.
- $277,000 from the U.S. Department of the Interior for youth programs and traffic safety.
- $62,000 from the National Park Service for historical preservation
Source: Turtle Mountain tribal government
Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation:
- Population: 18,000.
- Tribe’s total members: 36,000.
- Unemployment rate: 69 percent.
- High school dropout rate: 37 percent.
Source: Turtle Mountain tribal government