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Native Americans see unity as path to prosperity

  • Story Highlights
  • Seminole Tribe owns Hard Rock properties, looks to help unify Native Americans
  • The Native American Group is a consortium of various tribes
  • Keeping the dollar within Indian Country seen as way to help less fortunate tribes
  • Group now includes more than 100 Native-owned businesses
By Kim Segal and John Zarrella
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HOLLYWOOD, Florida (CNN) -- The slot machines are ringing, music is blasting at the crowded poolside bar, and people are dancing to celebrity DJs at hip nightclubs. But this is not a scene on the Las Vegas strip. This action is taking place on an Indian reservation.

Gamblers keep the tables busy at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Florida.

Richard Bowers Jr. says the Native American Group is intended to help tribes with basic needs.

Business at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida, is booming and contributing to the Seminole Indian Tribe's great wealth.

Now the Seminoles are taking that wealth -- and the power that comes with it -- and using it to do something that has not been done before: organizing Native American tribes with the intent of spreading economic opportunities across Indian Country.

"Some of these reservations I have been to -- it's like the Third World right here in the United States," says Richard Bowers Jr. As president of the Seminole Tribe of Florida Inc., Bowers has oversight over all the Hard Rock cafés, hotels and casinos in the world except the café in London and the casino in Las Vegas.

The Seminole Tribe purchased the Hard Rock properties in 2007 for a reported $965 million.

Bowers, a former alligator wrester and cattle rancher, is thankful for his tribe's success and has used his influence to create a consortium of Native American Tribes called the Native American Group. The goal of this group is to bring tribes throughout the United States and Canada together in an effort to promote Native American-owned businesses and services.

Keeping the dollar within Indian Country, Bowers hopes, will help the less fortunate tribes with basic needs such as housing, food and education.

"I view this as historic in nature," says Donald Laverdure, the chief legal counsel from Montana's Crow Tribe. "We haven't had first-nation to first-nation actually occur, and now with the success of the Seminoles and others, they have an opportunity to help tribes such as ourselves."

The help that the Crow Nation seeks is financial. For the Crow Tribe, gaming is not an option, according to Laverdure.

"There's less population, so the success in gaming cannot be paralleled as elsewhere," he says. "So we've always viewed our future in energy."

That energy would come from coal. The Crow Tribe wants to mine some of the 9 billion tons of coal that it estimates is on its land.

Crow Nation Chairman Cedric Black Eagle hopes the success of his tribe will lie in turning coal into liquid diesel. "It will open the door for Indian Country in energy fields and help this country start veering away from its dependence on foreign oil," he says.

As the group meets to discuss coal, Bowers recalls that it was the need for beef that prompted his idea for the Native American Group.

"Here we have all these cafes, casinos -- everybody eats a hamburger," says Bowers. "And than (I) realized that we don't have enough beef to supply our own needs, and that's when I reached out to other Native Americans that did have cattle."

Bowers discovered there are more than 2 million heads of cattle on Indian land. If there is not enough cattle on Indian land, then members of the group are encouraged to keep the business in the country and buy American.

The Native American Group has come a long way since Bowers was looking for cattle. The group now has more than 100 tribal members and more than 100 Native-owned businesses.

One successful business that joined the group is the largest Native American-owned contractor, Flintco. Robin Flint Ballenger, who is Cherokee, is its chairman of the board.

"It wasn't a far stretch for me at all to take a risk on this new organization because we are successful, we're doing very well," says Ballenger, who adds that a third of the company's work is done for Native America.

One of the projects Flintco is working on is a casino being built on Choctaw tribal land in Durant, Oklahoma.

With every Native American-owned casino, Bowers sees an economic opportunity for all.

"Trash bags, everybody uses trash bags -- so just for an example, let's all get together and order trash bags and it's going to be cheaper on all of us," Bowers says, pointing out that there is a Native American trash bag supplier.

When discussing the potential of the Native American Group, Ballenger remembers something her father used to show her.

"(He) showed me one stick and [said] you can break one stick easily," Ballenger recalls. "When you bundle many sticks together, it is impossible to break."

This is her wish for the consortium -- "That we will bundle these many sticks together and become impossible to break."

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