WINNEBAGO — In February 2012, Sunshine Thomas Bear promised her nine children that one day, she would be able to buy them a house.
She had just been evicted from her previous home and had to move around from place to place to raise her family.
But in October 2022, more than 10 years later, she was able to make good on her promise.
“It wasn’t as quick as I wanted it,” she said, laughing. “But everything I did was for my children and to be able to be somewhere where we wouldn’t have to be asked to leave.”
Today, Thomas Bear is the proud owner of a newly constructed six-bedroom home in Ho-Chunk Village 2.0 — a new 40-acre neighborhood with plans for more than 100 housing units on the north side of Winnebago, located on the Winnebago Reservation in northeast Nebraska.
Thomas Bear is a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, which allowed her to receive $75,000 to make a down payment on her home thanks to Ho-Chunk Incorporated, the economic development agency owned by the tribe.
“I don’t think that I would have been able to buy a home, had we not had the down payment assistance — especially right now, with the market these days,” Thomas Bear said.
Tide is shifting
Stories like Thomas Bear’s were nearly unheard of on the Winnebago Reservation 30 years ago.
Like many Native American reservations, poverty and unemployment were high in the community, while the availability of quality housing was low.
“A lot of the people lived in substandard housing and had no opportunity for growth, unless it was off the reservation,” Thomas Bear said. “When I was a child, it was like the Dust Bowl here.”
But in recent years, the tide has shifted in Winnebago — and not just through the down payment assistance program.
A wide array of economic development spearheaded by Ho-Chunk Inc. and its fearless president and CEO, Lance Morgan, has diversified the tribe’s revenue streams and created a burgeoning middle class on the reservation.
Land buy-back initiatives, new housing developments and economic assistance programs have provided the potential for many Winnebago to achieve generational wealth — an unprecedented step given the tribe’s history of government oppression.
For Morgan, the vision began in the 1980s when he was growing up on the reservation and heard tribal leaders discuss their dreams for Winnebago’s future. He remembered thinking, “I could do that.”
But in his adolescence, Morgan said he did not plan to work on the Winnebago Reservation, and instead saw a future in business and corporate development, neither of which were consistent on Native American reservations at the time.
He earned an economics degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a law degree from Harvard, where he studied Indian Corporate Law, and a job working at a prestigious law firm in Minnesota.
But the economic situation on the reservation remained dire, and it appeared it could get much worse in the mid-1990s when Iowa removed restrictions for casinos on non-reservation land. This hurt the Winnebago-owned WinnaVegas casino near Sloan, Iowa, located on the Winnebago reservation, which previously held a monopoly on the kind of gaming that would soon be permitted statewide.
Once the casinos in Council Bluffs became viable alternatives to WinnaVegas, Morgan said the casino lost 80% of its profits and had to lay off 300 people.
The tribe had to diversify its revenue sources beyond casino gambling, and Morgan’s education in tribal economic development made him the right man to lead the way.
“It wasn’t really my plan,” he said. “It was more of my passion.”
Tribal development agency launched
Morgan decided to leave his job in Minnesota to return to Winnebago and launch a new, tribal-owned economic development agency.
“I had an office on the 19th floor, and the next thing you know, I’m in my apartment starting a business on the reservation,” he said. “My father thought I must have been insane.”
That business was named Ho-Chunk Inc. after the traditional name for the Winnebago people, Hochungra, which is often shortened to Ho-Chunk, making the English translation of the company, “The People, Incorporated.”
Since its founding in 1994, the corporation has grown from a $108,000 discretionary budget to making more than $390 million in revenue last year.
Morgan’s father, Dwight, has since changed his mind about his son’s sanity and now lives in a house built by a Ho-Chunk Inc. company in a new Winnebago neighborhood Ho-Chunk Inc. developed.
“His perspective has changed a little bit,” Morgan said, chuckling.
Ho-Chunk Inc. is distinctive from most other large businesses in the state because of its commitment to the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska instead of corporate shareholders, Morgan said.
“We don’t want to be IBM or Microsoft or something like that. We want to be the best tribal corporation we can be,” he said. “We’re going to be capitalism with a heart.”
Creating companies from thin air
Government contracts make up the biggest business for Ho-Chunk Inc., according to Kevin Abourezk, managing editor at Indianz.com, a Native American news website, a subsidiary of Ho-Chunk Inc.
For example, Ho-Chunk Inc.-owned companies now provide all of the furniture for the U.S. Treasury Department and Department of Commerce, Abourezk said.
Ho-Chunk Inc. did not initially have a furniture supply company, but it was able to build one from scratch in order to fulfill the government contract.
“They’ll go out and find people who do know all about that area, and they’ll hire them and build offices and just create a company out of thin air,” Abourezk said.
While the primary mission of Ho-Chunk Inc. is to give back to the tribe, the corporation has also benefited others across the state.
Morgan described it as a rising tide that lifts the economic circumstances of everyone, regardless of tribal affiliation.
According to Morgan, Ho-Chunk Inc. employs more than 1,000 non-Natives across the country, with many of them working in Winnebago, which had a population of 916 in the 2020 census.
While many small towns see out-migration during the workday as people commute to jobs in larger cities, several Ho-Chunk Inc. employees estimated the number of people in Winnebago doubles during the workday.
“It’s not a reservation company,” said Sam Burrish, Ho-Chunk Inc. communications manager. “It’s a national company doing big things at many different levels.”
Many Nebraskans may already recognize Ho-Chunk Inc. as the developer of new WarHorse casinos across the state, including locations in Lincoln, Omaha and South Sioux City.
‘Everyone can be successful’
And it is hard to miss the impact Ho-Chunk Inc. has in Sioux City, Iowa, including the Ho-Chunk Centre, which rises 10 stories high in downtown.
“I think the lesson here is, if you can take a group that’s been marginalized and give them power and control over their own destiny and get out of the way a little bit, then there’s hope that everyone can be successful,” Morgan said.
While the homeownership success stories like Sunshine Thomas Bear’s are remarkable on their own, the Winnebago’s tribe’s history with land ownership makes what’s happening in Ho-Chunk Village that much more unlikely.
The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska was originally neither from Nebraska nor known as the Winnebago.
The tribe historically lived in the woodlands of Wisconsin, but were forcibly removed from place to place in the upper Midwest before eventually landing in Crow Creek in present-day central South Dakota.
Crow Creek was much drier than the tribe’s homeland and the farming practices that worked in Wisconsin were not effective in South Dakota.
“Our numbers were dire,” Sunshine Thomas Bear said. “We were all dying from sickness and starvation and the government wasn’t fulfilling their treaties.”
Some tribal members escaped South Dakota in the middle of the night and came to the woodlands of northeast Nebraska, where a somewhat friendlier climate awaited them.
Damage from Dawes Act
Treaties in 1865 and 1874 established the Winnebago Reservation in its present-day location, but harmful government policies stymied the tribe’s wellbeing and their impacts continue to be felt today.
One such policy was the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887, which broke up the large tracts of land entire tribes had received in treaties and instead gave individual ownership of the land to certain tribal members.
According to Abourezk, one of the goals of the act was to assimilate Native people into the white farmer’s culture of individual land ownership, destroying the Native culture of communal land ownership.
“I think even the boarding schools probably didn’t cause as much damage to Native American people and tribes as the Dawes Allotment Act,” Abourezk said.
Some Native Americans held onto their land, but many others struggled with the transition to capitalism and sold it to white farmers, which resulted in a checkerboard pattern of Native and non-Native land ownership that is still seen on the Winnebago Reservation today.
Much of the land Native Americans still control is held in trust, meaning that the federal government oversees the land and will often lease it to farmers or mineral companies.
“They call it holding it in trust, but they don’t really trust us to take care of it,” Abourezk said.
Land held in trust is not taxed, but it also means Native Americans cannot use their land as collateral, which is a primary means of building wealth for other Americans.
Tribal land ownership increases
“One of the most difficult things for Native people to deal with is not having land of their own that they can use the leverage to start a business or start a farm,” Abourezk said. “If you look back on how non-Native people in this country have built wealth, they’ve done it largely by leveraging their land and using its collateral on a loan to buy farm equipment or start a tailoring business or whatever.”
According to Ho-Chunk Farms manager Aaron LaPointe, the Winnebago Reservation spans more than 120,000 acres, but the tribe and tribal members own fewer than 30,000 acres and around 20,000 of those acres are unfarmable timberland along the Missouri River bluffs.
However, the tribal ownership acreage has increased in recent years, as the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and Ho-Chunk Inc. are in the process of buying back land on the reservation from non-Native owners.
“When we say taking land back, what we actually mean is buying that land from these farmers who purchased it from tribal members, almost centuries, at least decades ago,” Abourezk said.
In 2016, Ho-Chunk Farms owned 500 acres of land, but as of May 2023, the tribal-owned company now owns 6,200 acres.
Some of the land the tribe purchases is placed back in federal government trust and can provide tribal members with more affordable, tax-exempt housing, such as the new homes along Thunder Way and Big Winnebago Lane on the south side of Winnebago.
However, much of the land purchased by Ho-Chunk Farms and other Ho-Chunk Inc. subsidiaries is not placed back in trust, allowing Ho-Chunk Inc. or individual tribal members to own land themselves and use it as leverage for further economic development.
Generational wealth building
For example, Ho-Chunk Village 2.0, where Thomas Bear’s new home is located, was initially purchased by Ho-Chunk Inc. for housing development.
Now, Thomas Bear owns the house and the land, allowing it to become an asset for generational wealth building.
Driving through Winnebago today, it’s impossible to miss signs of economic development and growth.
On the south side of town, there’s an early childhood education center built in 2014 that serves nearly 200 students and is free for tribal members.
“It used to be two double-wide trailers put together and now it looks like Frank Lloyd Wright came back from the grave and built us a daycare center,” Morgan said.
There’s a new Daktronics digital sign that rotates upcoming community events for the 12,000 cars that drive past on Highway 77 each day.
And on the north side of Winnebago, there’s Ho-Chunk Village — a master-planned neighborhood developed by Ho-Chunk Inc. unlike anything else in rural northeast Nebraska.
The new construction and modern designs are in line with upscale neighborhoods in fast-growing metros, such as Fallbrook in Lincoln.
The community is complete with small businesses, corporate offices, retail, single and multi-family housing and a sculpture garden — all connected to the rest of the town through walking and biking trails.
Morgan said the dense, mixed-use development plan was beneficial in allowing the tribe to build more housing units with lower infrastructure costs and the walkable neighborhood could encourage physical activity and limit the risk of diabetes, which Morgan called an “absolute scourge” on reservations.
“We settled on a New Urbanism style and it killed a couple birds with one stone,” he said.
The initial neighborhood is 40 acres in size, and construction has recently begun on another 40 acre plot directly to the north, known as Ho-Chunk Village 2.0, which includes additional single family homes and senior housing.
“It was really designed primarily to figure out a way to keep our emerging middle class on the reservation, but also to figure out a way to provide quality housing for our fast-growing population,” Morgan said.
The growing population has been especially evident at Winnebago High School, which has grown from a D2 school — the smallest of the Nebraska School Activities Association’s six classifications — to a C1 school — the third largest — in 20 years.
Meanwhile, the St. Augustine Indian Mission — a K-8 Catholic school in Winnebago —recently unveiled a brand new $10 million building for its growing student population.
Thurston County, where Winnebago is located, has a median age of 27.5 — the lowest of any county in Nebraska and 18 years younger than the median age in Burt County, Thurston’s neighbor to the south.
Rural Nebraska success story
Thurston County also grew between 2010 and 2019, unlike each of its neighboring counties in Nebraska, with most of that growth coming from the Winnebago Reservation.
“We’re a success story in rural Nebraska, but it’s primarily because of housing,” Morgan said.
For new homeowners, like Sunshine Thomas Bear, financial support is not the only thing they receive from Ho-Chunk Inc.’s homeowner assistance program.
Bear also received counsel about the home buying process and took classes about home ownership from experts, which she said helped her feel more comfortable throughout the process.
“I think when you’re buying a home, it’s a little intimidating,” she said. “We were in the post-COVID market and the housing prices had gone up so much and it was a bit scary.”
As one of the newest residents of Ho-Chunk Village 2.0, Sunshine Thomas Bear has been quick to make her new house a home.
“I love to cook, I love to have all of the kids home and we’re just trying to take care of the yard,” she said.
Hope for whole community
Her story has inspired the next generation including her son, Jeremy Bear, who described homeownership as one of the “coolest things ever.”
“We came from not having so much and then, just looking around, it’s so dope,” he said. “To see her excel in life means a lot to all of us.”
Jeremy said he plans to stay in Winnebago and buy a house of his own one day — and his mom’s home motivates him to follow in her footsteps.
“I think that as a whole community, it gives more hope to us to be able to do this and give this to our families and our children,” Sunshine Thomas Bear said. “Not a lot of small towns in Nebraska are doing his type of thing. I think we all realize how lucky we are.”