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Defense contract may be boon to Rosebud Sioux

For the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation, home to some of the poorest people in America and a staggering unemployment rate, a planned Defense Department contract could mean economic development and new opportunities for the young.
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's the sort of operation one could easily overlook in a big city: 15 to 30 people making and testing circuit boards for a Defense Department contractor.

But for the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation, home to some of the poorest people in America and a staggering unemployment rate, the planned facility could be the seed that blooms into economic development and new opportunities for the young.

The project to create the Advanced Electronics Rosebud Integration Center received $1.8 million in the defense spending bill President Bush signed Dec. 30. The Rosebud reservation is being helped by a partnership with an Alabama company and federal rules that favor disadvantaged businesses.

''It's an exciting time for us, and I just hope that it'll work,'' said Rodney Bordeaux, tribal president. ''I'm pretty optimistic that it will work.''

Todd County, home of much of the south-central South Dakota reservation, has long been considered one of the nation's poorest counties. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, nearly half the people in Todd County live in poverty.

Phil Two Eagle, director of the tribe's Resource Development Office, estimates that 80 percent of the members on the reservation are unemployed. School officials estimate that about 15 percent of each freshman class drops out of high school.

The push for the center began in 2004, when Barth Robinson, a tribal member who works for Radiance Technologies of Huntsville, Ala., contacted Two Eagle.

Robinson, who is the son of a diplomat and grew up overseas, is now the project manager. He said that for him it was ''just time to migrate back'' to the land where his mother was raised.

In search of small business
But at the same time Radiance, which produces a variety of defense and computing products and has several Defense Department contracts, was looking for small or disadvantaged businesses to work with, said George Clark, president of Radiance. Federal regulations require large government contractors to work with such businesses as partners or subcontractors.

Several tribes have businesses involved in government contracting because of the rules, including Nebraska's Winnebago Tribe and North Dakota's Spirit Lake Nation.

Clark said his fast-growing company expects to fall under those rules soon, and added that Pentagon contractors also get financial incentives for partnering with tribal businesses.

The tribal council and South Dakota's congressional delegation gave their support to the partnership and helped push the legislation through, although at less than the $3 million funding originally proposed.

Work at the center will begin when a building and staff are in place, Robinson said. He expects the building to be finished by summer's end, and staff training will begin once the building is completed.

Eventual expansion eyed
Robinson said he thinks the tribal-owned firm eventually will expand from defense to commercial work. Two Eagle said he expects to see 100 jobs at the plant within three years, adding to tribal businesses that include a casino, a truck stop, a 30-megawatt wind farm, a bottled-water company, a lumber company and a buffalo ranch.

Because of the skills necessary to work at the center, Robinson anticipates that the tribe will hold a job fair to recruit workers from outside the reservation at first. But the company also hopes to find and train employees from within the tribe, he said.

The 2000 U.S. Census reported that there were 11,310 Rosebud Sioux tribal members living on the reservation, but tribal officials say the population is much higher.

Sinte Gleska University, the tribal college, will be involved with training tribal members to work at the center, and plans to develop a school of engineering, said Shawn Bordeaux, business and economic development officer for the college.

Motivation for education
The facility, whose employees will earn at least $15 an hour, could give young people on the reservation the motivation they need to continue their education, said Shawn Bordeaux, a relative of the tribal president.

Shawn Bordeaux, who used to work for Ho-Chunk Inc., the economic division of Nebraska's Winnebago Tribe, remembers Ho-Chunk's CEO driving his Porsche around town so young tribal members could see something to work toward.

He said Ho-Chunk has made around $100 million a year for the tribe by running businesses, including a gas company, and several Internet businesses; and said that he envisions Rosebud's six-year-old economic arm, the Rosebud Economic Development Co., giving his tribe a similar future.

''The big story is making these dreams come true in front of the kids,'' he said. ''Anything we can get that's concrete, physical, that they can see themselves, is going to do wonders for them.''