Tribes work closely with local communities, EDOs

Published: Wednesday, May 11, 2022 By: Staff Reports

Editor's note: This piece was originally written for the IEDC Economic Development Journal. We thought readers might be interested in learning a bit about the Chamber's response to economic development challenges. An edited version of the original is below.

The following are case studies involving five tribal nations and how collaborative efforts between each Native American tribe and the local community is helping to spur economic growth in both urban and rural communities.


For more than thirty years, under the leadership of Governor Bill Anoatubby, the Chickasaw Nation has built an economically diverse business portfolio.  Monies generated in their 100+ successful enterprises are divided between investments for further business diversification and support of tribal government operations, programs, and services. The Chickasaw Nation business and government operations employ more than 13,000 people and support more than 22,000 additional jobs in the state, including many in rural areas.

Many Oklahoma cities and towns have been positively impacted by the growth and prosperity of Chickasaw Nation businesses.  Additionally, the Chickasaw Nation has forged many partnerships and collaborations with leaders in communities in which they have built an economic presence.

The Chickasaw Nation approaches the development of its economic enterprises with a significant emphasis on forging partnerships and collaborations. One example of these partnerships in economic development is the multi-million-dollar resort destination under construction in downtown Oklahoma City.

When the Chickasaw Nation and City of Oklahoma City agreed that the Nation complete and operate the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum (AICCM), it was the beginning of not only the completion of the AICCM, but also the opportunity for the surrounding 140 acres to be fully developed.  The Museum has been completed, renamed the First Americans Museum (FAM) and opened in September 2021 with huge attendance and success.  The world-class, prestigious museum will now be complemented by a $300+ million resort development creatively named OKANA. 

“Strong partnerships and diligent effort among city and state officials and private entities have been integral to the launch of the First Americans Museum,” said Gov. Anoatubby. "With this world-class First Americans Museum now in operation, we are ready to turn our focus to what we believe will be another significant tourism and hospitality venue. It is our vision that the OKANA Resort will enhance the experience for visitors from not only our region, but across North America and around the world.”  

Situated along the Oklahoma River near downtown, OKANA Resort & Indoor Waterpark will be a tourist destination designed to continue the momentum of visitor and economic development in Oklahoma City. The project will be approximately 40 acres of the total 140 acres held by AICCM Land Development, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Chickasaw Nation.

The resort hotel will feature an 11-story, 404-room hotel, providing guests with luxurious accommodations, riverfront and lagoon views, and proximity to the heart of Oklahoma City and the Boathouse District. A five-acre outdoor adventure lagoon designed for relaxation and play will sit at the center of the property and will be comprised of one main body of water and two smaller bodies of water – all lined with sandy beaches. A pedestrian bridge will stretch across the main body of water, allowing guests to easily move throughout the property. The resort also will feature a 33,000-square-foot family entertainment center, over 100,000-square-foot indoor waterpark, 39,000 square feet of conference center space, spa and golf simulator, and multiple retail outlets and dining options.

OKANA also will include a Native American Market and amphitheater. The market provides a space for First American artists to showcase works of art or other creations. The amphitheater and outdoor lawn will accommodate 1,500 people. These venues are meant to augment the museum’s programming with local artist performances, festivals, lectures and similar events.

Chickasaw Nation Secretary of Commerce Bill Lance said that cooperation between local and state government and business leaders made this type of investment possible.  

“Undoubtedly, an entertainment and lodging complex of this magnitude will add significantly to the exciting progress going on in Oklahoma City,” Lance said. “Initially, the resort is projected to employ 400 people and the annualized economic impact year one is projected to be $97 million. Additionally, estimates for the 10-year economic impact of this development are projected to exceed $1 billion, with full-time employment expanding to approximately 700-800.”  OKANA is expected to attract 400,000 visitors, more than 50% of which will be from out of state.

OKANA promises to be an exciting addition to Oklahoma City’s hospitality and entertainment portfolio. The project, under the leadership of the Chickasaw Nation, will build on the success of FAM and many other attractions and will further magnify the economic vitality of the city.


As noted earlier, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma is one of the largest economic engines in the state. Its economic impact of $2.5 billion makes them one of the most substantial contributors to the state’s economy with much of the impact being felt in poorer rural areas of southeastern Oklahoma.

The tribe supported over 18,100 jobs in Oklahoma with wages and benefits of $839 million. The tribe is the single largest employer in southeastern Oklahoma with over 10,000 employees. The headquarters are in Durant where the tribe employs 4,200, making it the largest employer in the county.

Choctaw Nation continues to dominate the local economy with new facilities coming online every year. The tribe opened a 98,000-square-foot Cultural Center in July 2021. The facility hosts two exhibit halls, an art gallery, auditorium, children’s area, classrooms, offices, gift shop and cafe. The surrounding site includes a stickball field, a living village and a traditional mound.

In August 2021, a major expansion effort at the Choctaw Casino & Resort in Durant opened adding the Sky Tower: 21 stories high featuring 1,000 new luxury hotel rooms. Other amenities include new restaurants and bars, two additional movie theaters, three acres of swimming pools and more than 3,400 new slot machines, making Choctaw Casino & Resort-Durant one of the largest gaming resorts in the country.

In September 2021, a new childcare facility caring for nearly 300 children opened across from the Choctaw Nation headquarters in Durant.

In 2020, the tribe invested more than $183 million in new projects, including community centers, food distribution centers, wellness centers, health care facilities, housing, and Choctaw-owned businesses. 

With more than 12,000 employees in 2021, tribal leadership strives to better the lives of not just its Chahta people but also all those with whom they interact with in Oklahoma, the United States, and across the world. These efforts support job creation through economic development partnerships with others in the community and expanded social service programs to improve the lives of tribal members.

“We are a thriving force in the region that provides new opportunities, growth and prosperity to our families and communities,” Chief Gary Batton said. “We continue to bring positive change to not only our tribe, but to the entire state of Oklahoma and its people, both tribal and non-tribal, for years to come.”

In addition to the direct tribal investments, Choctaw Nation continues to invest in community partners and businesses owned by Choctaw citizens “Chahtapreneurs”. The Choctaw Development Fund was created in 2016 and has awarded over $7.3M toward community development projects (sports complexes, streetscapes, splash pads, industrial park fiber, etc.) and economic development recruitment projects that created over 430 jobs and $285M investment. The fund has also provided financial support to 70 small business start-ups. The Choctaw Nation Small Business Development team supports 800 Chahtapreneurs who employ 2,600 in their businesses.

In 2019, tribal leadership created the Choctaw Community Partner Fund which is a voluntary contribution to communities where the tribe has a non-gaming, retail presence. Since inception, donations have exceeded $5.4M. The program provides flexibility in assessing local needs and has allowed community leaders to address deferred maintenance and community enhancement projects that are too often overlooked.

Moving forward, Choctaw Nation leadership are committed to creating an economic development ecosystem where businesses will thrive. Through these various programs, Choctaw Citizens, local leaders, and area residents have access to better jobs, higher quality of life, and a hope in an area that has all too often been overlooked.


When economic developers, government officials, and the general public hears “infrastructure investment,” thoughts quickly turn to tried-and-true public works projects. The recently passed “Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act” further drives the conversation to roads, bridges, water treatment plants and rail lines. Within the last decade, broadband internet is frequently included in any discussion of infrastructure. While all these components enable economic development, commerce, and opportunity, the Cherokee Nation made an affirmative choice to add one more component to its infrastructure plans: healthcare.

Health infrastructure in the community is a multiplier for other businesses, a stabilizing force for economic health, and job creator, often providing some of the most-stable, and best-paying jobs in the region. Rural communities face structural challenges retaining existing businesses and workforce and are often at a significant disadvantage in attracting new opportunities and talent. Ready access to quality healthcare plays into location decisions for both companies and the employees who will staff them. Employers and entrepreneurs need access to quality care close-by, so that they and their employees spend less time travelling long distances or waiting in long queues to receive care.

The Cherokee Nation is one of the largest sovereign native nations in the United States, with over 400,000 tribal citizens and a $2.1 billion impact on the regional economy. Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. oversees the administration of a three-branch government headquartered in Tahlequah, Okla. Cherokee Nation and Cherokee Nation Businesses (CNB), the holding company and economic engine of the Nation, collectively employ more than 11,000 workers throughout the region and around the country. A substantial portion of the Cherokee Reservation, spanning most of 14 counties in northeastern Oklahoma, is rural and dotted with small cities, towns, and communities. Cherokee Nation operates the largest tribal healthcare system in the United States, serving thousands of patients every year who might otherwise not receive care, or who might overwhelm limited rural facilities. This system buys its inputs locally wherever possible, and its employees bring home wages and benefits that stay in the region.

Years ago, Cherokee Nation set out on a plan to ensure that its citizens were not more than 30 minutes away from access to primary care at any point in the Reservation. This has been a long-term project spanning three administrations, with the most significant investments coming in the form of a $200 million Outpatient Health Facility located in Tahlequah that opened in 2019. The 496,000 square-foot facility houses primary care, audiology, optometry, physical therapy, radiology, ambulatory surgery, dental care, and other ambulatory health services in 240 exam rooms, two MRI suites, and 34 dental operatories. The facility is the largest ever constructed under the Indian Healthcare Service (IHS) Joint Venture Construction Program. Via the joint venture agreement, Cherokee Nation agreed to construct the facility, while IHS agreed to fund annual staffing and personnel costs of $100 million.

This process of negotiation and collaboration required an intense, multi-year effort from the administration of Principal Chief Bill John Baker, with the agreement signed in 2016. Along the way, every Cherokee Nation Health Services primary care facility has been upgraded or rebuilt, with state-of-the-art facilities in communities like Vinita, Jay, Stillwell and Ochelata. These are communities with large Native populations, and where health facilities are in short supply or non-existent.  Cherokee Nation constructed these facilities with local vendorsand labor, ensuring the economic impact of these projects stayed home.

Today, Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. and the Cherokee Nation Health Services team keep an eye on the next phase of health infrastructure investments. The Nation recently announced plans to construct a replacement in-patient hospital for the functionally obsolete WW Hastings Indian Hospital with a new $400 million facility, freeing up the existing facility for conversion to a much-needed behavioral health use. An additional $35 million is targeted to replace the outdated primary care facility in Salina, Oklahoma, and $5 million more is being donated to Northeastern State University for the construction of a new College of Optometry.

With the physical infrastructure of healthcare central to the Nation’s long-term thinking, the physicians that care for patients throughout the Reservation and in rural Oklahoma are a critical, scarce component. IHS facilities often attract physicians for short-duration rotations where they gain valuable experience, but then move on. It is difficult to attract and retain physicians to long-term practice in rural and tribal settings. Oklahoma State University’s (OSU’s) College of Osteopathic Medicine has long been focused on rural healthcare, in keeping with one of the University’s core missions.

Cherokee Nation and OSU, after building relationships and trust over years, entered a first-of-its-kind partnership to open a medical school on Tribal land after a process that started in 2012. The Cherokee Nation constructed a brand new, $40 million facility to house the program, replete with skill practice labs and loaded with technology. OSU provides the faculty and staff, and the OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine at the Cherokee Nation welcomed its first class of 54 students in January 2021. Students in the region can now see first-hand the possibilities available to them: the opportunity to be a physician serving in top-notch facilities, on the front lines of meaningful medical practice in communities that have both great need, and great appreciation.  Tribal members can provide the ultimate service to the Cherokee Nation: care for elders, care for the young, and a role in ensuring the long-term health and well-being of a people.

Infrastructure investments require vision, partnerships, and trust, whether that project is a new bridge or a new health facility. Each plays a role in Cherokee Nation’s ongoing success in health infrastructure.  The Nation’s patience and commitment to execute the vision of a robust tribal health system and investment strategy is the result of the constant tending of the embers of the original idea. Big partnerships happen internally and externally, with CNB’s capabilities in construction management, procurement, and logistics augmenting the Nation’s development process.

External partnerships that were years in the making continue to yield lasting benefit: IHS staff and Cherokee Nation staff work side-by-side, and the same happens with OSU. Northeastern State University’s College of Optometry will provide ongoing education and a pathway for vision care that will benefit the Cherokee health system and beyond. The combination of a bold vision established partnerships and trust mean that Cherokee Nation remains confident that the significant investment of its funds will leverage – at every opportunity – other funding streams like the IHS Joint Venture program, OSU’s superb teaching staff, and NSU’s long history in vision care.

Cherokee Nation’s commitment to infrastructure development remains unwavering, and its commitment to ensuring that people in this region have access to quality care is an investment in making the Cherokee Reservation and Northeast Oklahoma a competitive region for business, opportunity, and growth.


Recognizing a need for regional food systems, The Muscogee (Creek) Nation is making investments in critical infrastructure. With the construction and opening of a meat processing facility, Looped Square Meat Company, along with the acquisition of the Looped Square Ranch, Muscogee (Creek) Nation is building and growing a regional agricultural economy that benefits all Oklahomans.

The Looped Square Ranch is an area of 5,570 acres of ranch land in Okmulgee County. It is the largest land purchase in the history of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the largest contiguous parcel the Nation owns. The purchase price was $20.052 million, and the property contains a working facility, commercial scales, office space as well as several barns and outbuildings. This property will allow the Muscogee (Creek) Nation to implement an internship program for youth interested in a career in agriculture and provide on-the–job training opportunities on a large-scale operation. The grazing capacity of the Looped Square Ranch has expanded from 300 head of cattle to more than 1,000 and will supply Looped Square Beef for the new processing facility.

Muscogee (Creek) Nation Tribal Construction Director, Steve Emerson, states, “This is something that our state and communities need. When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, there was a shortage of meat and many processing plants throughout the nation closed. Everyone experienced the shortage, prices were elevated, and shelves were empty. If we could have had this meat processing plant up and running, we could have helped the state and the community.”

The Looped Square Meat Company is a USDA-certified processing facility with 25,000 square feet of processing space, a retail area, and a test kitchen space. In addition to fresh cuts of beef and pork, it has a dry-aging room with smoking capabilities for brisket, pork shoulder, ham, and jerky. The state-of-the-art facility cost more than $26 million to construct. The Nation used CARES Act money for the project which will have a $1.5 million annual direct economic impact and immediately create 10 full-time jobs, with an estimate to eventually create more than 25. The processing facility will have the capacity to harvest 50 head per week, which equates to a retail weight of approximately 130,000 pounds of beef, or 30,000 pounds of pork, or a mix thereof. Looped Square will also be able to process sheep and goats and has a separate wing for venison processing. Director Kissee explains that by separating the beef/pork side from the wildlife wing, you can avoid cross contamination. The facility has worked hand in hand with USDA and EPA to maintain a quality and safety approach. Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s vision is to promote long-term stability in food sovereignty and security for years to come.


With the increase in tribal economic impact, the economic fates of the state of Oklahoma and the tribes in Oklahoma are becoming more intertwined. This can be seen in the growth in employment and in the employer rankings put forward by the Oklahoma Department of Commerce. This is especially true in rural Oklahoma where tribes employ a greater share of local workers as tribal economic growth pushes against the pressures of rural decline being observed throughout the United States. The Tribes, the State, and Municipalities are occupying the same ground at the same moment in history; and all are providing services to the citizens of Oklahoma, the U.S. and beyond, making Tribal Nations key strategic collaborators in improving economic and community development.

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