RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We're reporting on Native Americans this month in conjunction with the PBS series "We Shall Remain." We're examining issues of identity and culture and what it means to be an Indian. Today, we'll look at sovereignty. There are 562 federally recognized tribes. They are nations with their own governments, schools and economic systems. But that nationhood has its limits. Reporter Arun Rath visited the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma and has this report.
ARUN RATH: Foreign trade is a priority for the Chickasaw Nation. Their number one trading partner: Texas.
Unidentified Man: Remember, ladies, if you're playing the Palace Casino, make sure you keep that…
RATH: The WinStar casino is right across the border in Oklahoma. It's the closest legal gambling to Dallas, so even on a Tuesday night, the vast parking lot is filled with Texas tags.
Like many Indian tribes, the Chickasaw rake in huge sums from their casinos. But there's a certain nervousness here about basing a whole nation's fortunes on gambling.
Governor BILL ANOATUBBY (Governor, Chickasaw Nation): My mom used to say, don't put all your eggs in one basket. And that's the essence of what we do when it comes to businesses.
RATH: Bill Anoatubby has been the governor of the Chickasaw Nation since 1987, now serving his sixth elected term.
Gov. ANOATUBBY: There's always this resistance to gaming in a community, it's in Congress. And so you really - you're not sure what the direction might be. Congress, at a very little notice, could change the rules on us, and if they did, then we could have problems.
RATH: Governor Anoatubby has spent much of the past 20 years working to strengthen the nation's foundation by diversifying the tribe's economy.
Gov. ANOATUBBY: We shouldn't rely strictly on gaming, and we should invest as much as we can now while the dollars are there.
RATH: The tribe is investing in business ranging from radio stations to banks to a chocolate factory.
Mr. NICLAS CARLSSON (General Manager, Bedre Chocolates): If you ever want to go swimming in chocolate, this is where you go.
RATH: Niclas Carlsson is the general manager of Bedre Chocolates, a Chickasaw-owned business that makes high-end confections.
Bedre has expanded in recent years by adding corporate clients and selling to upscale department stores. If you've bought chocolates from Bloomingdales or Neiman Marcus, odds are you've eaten candies made by the Chickasaw Nation.
Mr. CARLSSON: Being owned by the Chickasaw Nation, all of the revenues that we have from the company actually goes back into the tribe, and ultimately to the citizens of the Chickasaw Nation.
RATH: Governor Anoatubby has transformed all that trade revenue into considerable power for his nation's government.
Gov. ANOATUBBY: When I first came to work with the nation, there were 25 employees, maybe one or two more. We had a budget of somewhere around a million dollars, or a little less, primarily federal funds. Today, we have 10,500 employees (unintelligible) about 750 million that we operate with.
RATH: With such deep pockets, the governor has been able to pursue an ambitious domestic agenda. Every member of the tribe has access to extended education benefits and scholarships. For working parents, there's free child care, and even a care center for mildly ill children.
And Governor Anoatubby has been able to achieve something President Obama can currently only dream of: universal health care.
Bill Lance is the administrator for the Chickasaw Nation Health System.
Mr. BILL LANCE (Administrator, Chickasaw Nation Health System): There's no co-payment required for any of the services that we provide. In fact, there's no third-party resources that are necessary. We're just, per law, we're able to bill for those third-party resources to help provide more health care for the patients we're responsible for.
RATH: The Chickasaw Nation is actually adding new health care services. To address high rates of diabetes among the native population, a state of the art comprehensive care facility was recently established. And Bill Lance is overseeing construction of a new $147 million hospital. The design celebrates Chickasaw culture.
Mr. LANCE: If you note, there's kind of a random order to that pattern of windows. And that's a predominant theme that you see in Chickasaw art.
RATH: Governor Anoatubby says providing such infrastructure and services without federal assistance has been crucial for the Chickasaw.
Gov. ANOATUBBY: When you are under the federal guidelines and the dollars that you get are from the federal government, there are a lot of strings. They tell you what you can do. If you're generating dollars that are yours and you're operating under your guidelines and the direction that you wish to go. We need to be so self-determined that we could stand on our two feet.
RATH: It's hard to think of a better definition of sovereignty: economic independence that translates into national independence.
For NPR News, I'm Arun Rath.
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