Wisconsin Watch opens dialogue on economic issues and explores perspectives on journalists’ approach to reporting on the Ho-Chunk Nation

By Ardith Van Riper

     Wisconsin Watch, in collaboration with Indian Country Today, opened communication with Ho-Chunk Nation tribal members regarding economic issues and explored perspectives on journalists’ approach to reporting on the Ho-Chunk Nation.  The ‘Share your voice: How to build a stronger economy for Ho-Chunk Nation’ event took place on May 12 at the District One Community Center near Black River Falls. The gathering also offered a forum for Ho-Chunk Nation tribal members to interact with leaders. 

     Indian Country Today President Karen Lincoln Michel moderated the discussion.  Panelists included Wisconsin Watch Reporter Mario Koran, Owner of Thundercloud Communications, LLC Anne Thundercloud, Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison Executive Manager Dan Brown, Ho-Chunk Nation Economic Diversification Director Bettina Warner, and Ho-Chunk Nation President Marlon White Eagle. 

     Wisconsin Watch Deputy Managing Editor Jim Malewitz provided the opening introductions, “…for folks who haven’t met Wisconsin Watch, we’re a nonprofit, nonpartisan, independent news outlet.  Our mission is to increase the quality, quantity, and understanding of investigative journalism to foster an informed citizenry and democracy.”

     Wisconsin Watch serves communities across the state.  They have a small team and need to be pretty picky about the stories they cover.  Their three-pronged mission includes protect the vulnerable, illuminate wrongdoings, and seek solutions.

     “I’ll pass it off to Karen Michele, who is the president of Indian Country Today,” said Malewitz.  “She’s a Ho-Chunk citizen and a nationally noted leader in Native American journalism and newsroom diversity.  Michele was formally a publisher and editor of Madison Magazine, and served on Wisconsin Watch’s board of directors until June of 2021, including the role of president.  She is a former executive editor of The Daily Advertiser in Lafayette, Louisiana, and assistant managing editor of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.  Before that, she covered state government and politics as the Press-Gazette’s Madison bureau chief.  She began her daily newspaper career in Wisconsin as a reporter at the La Crosse Tribune and was a long-time part-owner of the newspaper News From Indian Country, published in northern Wisconsin.  She’s a past president of the Native American Journalists Association.  Michel has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin – Stout and a master’s degree from Marquette University.”

     Karen Michele then provided programming notes.  The first part provided a quick behind-the-scenes look at Wisconsin Watch’s reporting, then discussed more broad things like probing how Ho-Chunk people and journalists can build trust to strengthen democracy and ensure that the news media accurately reflects alternative perspectives.  Then a ten minutes Question and Answer session.  Then there is a second paned.  That panel discusses the events that happened due to COVID-19, the temporary shutdown of the casinos in 2020, and the aftermath in terms of efforts to diversify the Ho-Chunk economy.

     The first question went to President White Eagle.  Michele asked him to introduce himself and briefly explain why he chose to attend this evening.

     “I see the effort being put into wanting to spotlight the economic diversification efforts of the Ho-Chunk Nation,” President White Eagle answered.  He explained that building momentum needs to happen for the Nation to move forward.  The Nation’s members have been asking for separation of business from the government for probably 20 or 30 years now, and that requires legislation.

     Karen Michele then asked Mario Koran and Anne Thundercloud to introduce themselves.  Koran grew up in Central Wisconsin, attended the University of Wisconsin, was a reporter for Voice of San Diego and the Guardian, and currently is an investigative reporter for Wisconsin Watch.  Anne Thundercloud is the daughter of Andrew Thundercloud, Jr. and Heleen Lincoln, a former reporter for the Hocak Worak, government worker for the State of Wisconsin, and worked her way up the ladder.  She provided public relations for the Ho-Chunk people and found she enjoyed connecting our people with other communities and the media.  She started her own public relations company in 2012 and has been building media relations ever since.

     The following questions were directed at Mario Koran.  Those questions were: How does Wisconsin Watch typically decide to consider a news story; why did you decide to report on this story in particular; and what would you like readers to have taken away from the reporting?

     “We’ve got a lot of ground to cover with a pretty small staff,” began Mario.  “People hear ‘Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism,’ they often think that we are investigating problems, and sometimes we do.  We like to uncover malfeasance in an effort to protect the public.  But that’s not all we do.  We, as part of our mission to, to seek solutions, we’ll embark on investigative, explanatory stories that we think could explain an important aspect of what makes Wisconsin – Wisconsin.” 

     “We thought it was a good opportunity to examine tribal nations in Wisconsin, which play an important role in the state overall,” further explained Koran.  “That’s what we hope non-citizens will come away with – an understanding of tribal citizens.  Obviously, it was my hope that tribal citizens saw their views accurately represented in the story, that it wasn’t a narrow-minded.”

     They hope to come to a jump-off point, have greater conversations, and more conversations because some problems require a continued exchange.  Wisconsin Watch hopes to be part of that.

     Karen Michele moved over to Anne Thundercloud by asking her how she became involved in this project and what kind of role did she play.

     “Wisconsin Watch contacted me in December of last year.  They kind of laid out the idea of what they were pursuing,” Anne answered.  “I liked the idea that they were working in conjunction with Indian Country Today.  I thought, well, if Indian Country Today is doing it, then we can have our story heard.”

     “I also want to work in the best interest of my people.  I thought, well, if things aren’t going so well, as far as communication between our people and our branches of government, which I thought that appeared to me at the time, then this is a way that I can work, use my skills to help bridge the gap between the media and also tribal membership and tribal leadership.  Get our story out there from our own voices.  Hopefully, bring about more conversations because I believe this is a very important issue.  It’s long overdue to have these conversations,” Anne finished her answer.

     Karen Michele returned to Mario by asking him to explain how he approached his reporting of this story, the steps he took, and what challenges he faced.

     “I knew going into reporting the story that it would be a sensitive story to report, in part because there's just simply an over represented of stories about casinos, and about gaming,” responded Mario.  “I think, so this had the risk, this ran the risk of being just this, you know, sort of narrow minded story that we've seen 100 times, and people may not want to talk about it.  There was, I think, a question at the center of this is what, you know, we saw what happened during the pandemic, so many aspects of our economy were battered. We saw casino doors close and the revenue that was lost in the in the following years. So there were serious implications to that.  And there was a bigger, deeper question about what does the economy look like moving forward into the future, beyond gaming.”

     “I knew that trust building was going to be an important part of this. Thankfully, we connected with Anne early on,  and Anne helped open doors, help sort of guide our questions with questions that we were asking things that we needed to think about before even approaching people. And I think, you know, the most important element of building trust is listening,” continued Koran.

     Mario Koran and Anne took the time to report the story.  Much of that time was spent on conversation and not going to people with any agenda.  Instead, they introduced themselves and told people what they wanted to accomplish. It wasn’t easy getting people to talk.

     “That's what it takes as a reporter often, just to keep being persistent, knocking on doors and staying polite. And, you know, thankfully, there was enough, I believe enough folks that were generous with their time and insights through this, to help us fill out an informative story. So that's a little bit of the process that I thought was,” said Koran.

     “Thank you for that. It's always good to hear a reporter's perspective because I think people don't often stop to think about that. The challenges that we face as journalists, we have to ask the tough questions,” said Karen Michele. 

     Then, she asked President White Eagle about his perspective, having been a journalist himself with the Hocak Worak.  She asked if he thought journalism changed at all, now that he is a government official.

     “I would say it hasn’t changed,” replied President White Eagle.  He compared his entrance into the political arena with being an editor and moving to a super-editor because now he controls the narrative and can decide to start discussions and conversations like this.

     Another question Karen Michele asked President White Eagle was if he thought it was difficult to talk about the economy and some challenges that the Nation faces.

     “Yeah, definitely, there is some, you know, we have to follow the tribal law,” responded President White Eagle. “And, you know, not everybody knows that tribal law, even some of our tribal lawyers, and, you know, we have, they have to go through and go back and read again, you know, and so that was part of the interesting part, because he wants to be able to tell, you know, so, you know, if we're talking about $500 million, you can just sort of, you know, if it was $500 million, you know, part of you can over exaggerate the new $500 billion, you know, budget or a $50,000 budget. And so divulging that information is, you know, in Ho-Chunk, tribal law is confidential information. So, it's, you kind of have been, tread lightly, but you can sort of just spill out that type of information.”

     Michele directed the next couple of questions to Anne and Mario.  Those questions were: what, if anything, should you ask or look for when evaluating whether someone's voice is accurately presented in a news story; if a tribal member approached you and asked about, you know, engaging with the journalists or like a journalist had called them - what would you tell them - as far as why it's essential to speak up.

     “There's a broad array of things that I could talk about,” Anne responded first.  “I guess the first thing is that, why? Why would you pick that story? Why would you? Do you feel that you're qualified to speak on that issue? Otherwise, are there other people that can contribute that are possibly for well versed in that issue? Also, we have to be considerate of their time. They work with deadlines. If they ask, they call you, and they want a quote from you, I would say that you the first thing that you would say was, what's your deadline? When can I get back to you if you're not ready to speak at that moment? That way, you have a little bit more time to get your information together.

     “Make sure that your information is accurate, up to date. When you respond to them. Make sure that it's very timely because they do have very busy schedules, and they're under deadlines a lot of times, and so we have to think about what can I do to make your job easier for you. Now, if I'm talking about working as a public relations person, there's a lot of things that I consider when I work with journalists.

     “That is making sure again that everything is accurate, and that I supply the most up to date timely information for them, and cite your sources, make sure you know what you're talking about. Because my parents and family had always told me that if you don't know what you're talking about, you shouldn't say anything at all. And I think that's probably something that is an old-school teaching that maybe not a lot of people abide by anymore. And so, I think that we need to hold true to some of those things. You know, I'm sure you guys heard that before. Yeah. So that's, you know, that's another thing too. And so there's, there's a lot of things that I would consider telling folks, and if you guys ever are approach, for a story, feel free to give me a call, drop me a message.

     “I'll be happy to help you in any way that I can. Because I live for this kind of stuff, I get a lot of enjoyment out of it. And I think it's important for our voices to tell our stories rather than to be told by somebody else, because those needs are over.”

     Mario added, “In terms of, you're trying to make sure that your views are accurately reported, when a reporter calls you, I think one of the first things that you could do is look that person up and find out the stories that they've done before — the kinds of stories that their outlet does, you'll be able to tell pretty quickly what sort of, you know, if they have sort of an I mean, a bias one way or the other, you'll be able to tell.

     “If you know it looks like a line of credible work, work that seems reputable to you. You can check it out. It seems it seems to be factually accurate, then then I think that's the first good sign. The second sign, I think, is just being able to speak with that reporter and try to get a feel for what's the story that you want to tell.  It's okay to just speak with the reporter and ask questions and ask about the story that they're looking into like and said, Why are you asking me why? Why are you doing the story right now? That's a perfectly fair question.

     “If the reporter can't really answer that, then you know, then that might be a sign that they there, they might not be the best journalist for that story, I don't know, you'd have to make this decision if you want to talk to them or not. But you know, there's really no way that you're going to know for sure until that story comes out. And when that story comes out, if it doesn't reflect accurately what you said, first, you could demand a correction, because that's the rule.

     “It's like the journalism law.  If we get something wrong in a story, we have to issue a correction. Nobody wants to do that. So we try to make sure that everything's right the first time around. But you know, secondly, it comes down to us if I feel like, or if I burned you in some way, meaning that I didn't give you a chance to respond to something, I quoted you and something that's inaccurate or unfair, you're probably not going to talk to me again in the future. And that's just the way it works.

     “So you know, it's in my benefit to make sure that I come back to you and make sure everything's okay, make sure everything's accurate, if I'm really a serious journalist about wanting to build trust with you. And so, you know, I think those are just a couple of things to keep in mind. You know, not all journalists are created equal, but, you know, some really are trying to learn and do the best they can.”

     Next, Karen Michele asked for questions from the audience. 

      An attendee asked about the newsletter and getting investigative reporting included.  The discussion revealed that the newsletter needs reporters, and those reporters would have to be interested in a reporting beat.  That beat could be tribal government, lawmaking, culture, events, or other types of reporting.

     Anne Thundercloud mentioned that she thought it also depended on the editor and the direction the editor wanted to take.  She further explained that the current editor is covering everything.  There are currently no reporters.

     Further discussion touched on building trust, and the group shared stories.

     Karen Michele moved on to the second panel.  She asked Dan Brown and Bettina Warner to introduce themselves briefly.

     “Good evening, everyone. Daniel Brown,” started the Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison Executive Manager.  “So most of you probably know, kind of a little bit of who I am. But I've been working with the tribe for 29 years, all the while just a super dedicated mission for me just to raise the standard of living for our people, do whatever I can. And, of course, that's in the area of gaming. I did serve as vice president for a little bit.  I was Vice President from 2007 to 2011.  Just really interested in this topic, particularly when we're talking about, you know, advancing the interests of our nation, and, you know, moving the needle for our people to raise the standard of living. So, thanks for inviting me, this is great to see so many of you.”

     “My name is Tina Warner,” said the Economic Diversification Director.  “I have a background in various industry sectors. I have done environmental remediation, a little bit of oil and gas, mining, natural resources, conservation work, you name it, and I’ve probably done it. I have a master's in International Business Administration, certified project manager. I just finished up my cybersecurity program. So I have worked. This is my second time with working with the Nation. I have had state jobs, I've had public sector jobs, private sector jobs, and DOD jobs. So I'm very diverse.”

     Karen Michele returned to President White Eagle.  She said, “President WhiteEagle, help us understand what the pandemic has meant for the broader economy. So like, ongoing efforts are ongoing effects on the available jobs that are out there and funding for government services. So what do you find opportunities and government services look like now? Compared to before the pandemic?”

     “Yes, before the pandemic,” President White Eagle began. “We're really relying on the NPD dollars.  That's a gaming revenue. And that would essentially what would occur is that all the profit, all the revenue sources that gaming side of the house would go into it have what's called the general fund. And from there, then it's divvied up in an annual budget each year.  We're just about there for the upcoming fiscal year, fiscal year search July 1 to June 30. And where we got coming in, we're, we were up there I would say like you're pretty top-heavy in terms of employment in jobs that were there.

     “And when the layoffs occurred, then we got to analyze how what's reasonable for the amount of the payroll, you know, so, pre-pandemic, we were, you know, a per cap, obviously, was our number one expense. And then, after that was our health insurance, then, you know, right after health insurance was our payroll, and, you know, our budget was cut, you know, drastically with no income coming in from the gaming side. And so that's what that's essentially what led to the layoffs during the COVID pandemic. So, you know, we could have kept everyone on, but that would probably put us in a deeper financial, financial position. So, I feel like we navigated through the pandemic in a very responsible manner.

     “And now we're starting to, you know, we've increased the budget, probably by, you know, almost 40% of the increase on the annual budget. So, you know, we're going to be able to bring back some jobs, and, you know, we're not, they're complete, you know, additional weight, you know, some legislation that occurred, we have now we have a cost of living allowance, that that is being calculated into our annual budget. So that is going to add, and payroll expense, you know, so each of the departments that are responsible for making that balance of, you know, what services are they going to offer, and how much public staff do they need.

     “So, you know, they're the ones they're the subject matter experts, and, you know, I really trust in rely on the, each of the executive directors to, to make that responsible choice. And then, you know, when, when they feel when they're not confident in it, you know, that I tried to step in, when, when that's needed, but it's very rare that I have to have to step in and help make decisions. But by and large, each of the departments are pretty well aware of what they, how they serve the people and what they need to get done.”

     Then, President White Eagle was asked if he would restore all the positions that were there, pre-pandemic.

     “It was up to me,” President White Eagle said.  “You know, that's what we when we go through this budget process, you know, the last few years here, you know, the, the legislature gives us a spending cap, and then our goal is to stay under the spending cap. And that's kind of what we've been doing.”

     This statement began a discussion on the budget process.  The budget process turned into business revenue.  Dialogue on business revenue covered Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison specifically.

     Karen Michele asked Bettina Warner to explain her job, why it was created, and her plans to approach her new position.

     “Legislative branch pursued the USDA grant to find alternative economic development endeavors,” began Warner.  “And the legislature was awarded with a grant. So that's the creation of my position, economic diversification director. My primary job is to work with economic diversification and development firm to complete a Said's a comprehensive economic diversification and strategy plan. So we just recently acquired a contractor, a native-owned entity, she came on board this week. So I had my meeting with her yesterday. So it was a pre-meeting wasn't those kickoff meeting, but it was a pre meeting to get to know one another. And ask questions, Scope of Work, work sessions, expectations, so on and so forth.”

     Michele asked both Brown and Warner about obstacles they thought may have prevented the Nation from diversifying up until now.

     Dan Brown spoke up first, “I mentioned that earlier. It's structural. It's systemic. The fact that we continue as people as tribal people continue to think that the legislator has the acumen and the ability to take us into a different direction. And that's just not the case. You know, they just lacked that kind of wherewithal. And it's mocking the legislature. It's not the point of it at all. It's just the fact that one has to realize, if you look in the mirror and said, I don't know what I don't know. And our legislature, I mean, past legislators, not just the current but have not had that wherewithal, just to understand we've got to do something different.

     “This is, again, its 30 years, 30 years July 30. And we've done almost nothing in terms of diversifying our economic development. It's, it's totally absent. And it's really up to us as tribal members to start messaging back to our legislature that we really have to do this and move the needle that we have for right now. If you look at there's a Harvard paper regarding the different types of corporations, and our section 17 or 12 Clans right now is a perfect opportunity.

     “It completely separates business from government, as was, you know, voted on in 2013. So it's time to, you know, it's time for us to move in that direction and legislature just has to put themselves and say I just don't know, relinquish the businesses to the business allow for efficiency, the 12 or the 12 Clans a section 17 has the wherewithal financially they'll have leverage available, they'll be able to take on loans, they'll incur the debt. They'll take the risks, as opposed to the government.

     “Every time the government does something and we wind up in debt and everybody's a little scared to put that gets cut like whatever, we just have to move in a different direction. You know, and it's past time that we move towards a separation.”

     Bettina Warner spoke second, “And I also think that we need to think outside the box. I mean, primarily, our tribal membership has worked for the nation and the nation, that alone. So they have no real world application. And he's saying section 17. I'm saying section eight, A as well, for diversity for consulting, engineering consulting for firms for cybersecurity consulting firms, industrial services, government services, we can go after multimillion dollar contracts, you know, utilizing the federal government's funding. So that's another way of establishing diversity as well. So I'm thinking millions of dollars.”

     Karen Michele asked the following question - What do you think are the biggest opportunities that are out there?

     The group got off topic a bit, and then Warner said, “Back to back to the original question. Okay, so my list for biggest opportunities for diversification. What my intentions are, these are just suggestions for everybody is I want to build up our corridors going to our casinos with franchises, franchises, so our corridors, we own lots of property with nothing on them and we're paying taxes, for just having leases.

     “We need to start building. So if we develop a multitude of LLCs for franchises, franchises would include like Tires Plus, and O'Reilly's a NAPA, Caribou Coffee, Chick fil A, Buffalo Wild Wings, Trader Joe's just start making our own little communities instead of going elsewhere going to Walmart. Their proven systems marketing's already completed for you, you know what they're about, as I stated previously, engineering consulting firm AA certified and cybersecurity.  Then we can also go into technical services, information technology, medical life sciences, even broadband and that's part of the EDA grant that I'm working on as well as broadband internet fibers.

     “My emphasis would be renewable energy, solar, and wind turbines. I've contacted Alliant Energy and discussed the three tariffs that we could utilize with them as well. Electric charging stations, you know, electric cars are now becoming popular. I have a couple of friends in Baraboo that bought electric cars that are now going to hybrids because aren't a new charging stations. They've had to get towed since they ran out of juice. A lithium battery recycling plant everything electric cars, all your electronic needs, everything your tools, everything is generated with lithium batteries, made these batteries.

     “If we started recycling, that would put us into a multimillion-dollar industry. I was contemplating there's only several nationally, probably five to 10 recycling plants nationwide. So is interested in contacting them and maybe doing a partnership. Logistics, trucking company. That's an industry-wide bottleneck. That's why we have not a whole lot of supplies on the shelves right now in major retail chains.

     “Just partnering with other companies, other tribes universities do research and development, biotech, robotics, information computer technology, artificial intelligence, AI, automation, semiconductor manufacturing computer chips, why focus on China? We can start doing that. Do something locally, semi-truck stops. I mean, putting Loves or whatever it is down in the Dells or wherever.

     “We have people that want to be diesel truck drivers. We have people that want to be diesel truck mechanics. Daycares. Large-scale rental properties with businesses underneath. There's so many things that we can do.  We can really diversify. Agriculture.

     “So those are my thoughts. I'm putting this all into a community assessment to get everybody's input, and see where everybody else because every community is different. And we need to know what every tribal member thinks and feels for their own particular area community. So that's what I'm working on.”

     The discussion then turned into a Question and Answer session, and the group began to end the gathering.

     “Well, I'd like to say thank you to everybody for your great questions and your participation and for being here,” concluded Karen Michele.  “I'd like to thank our panelists for your vision and insights economic outlook for the nation. So if you all give a round of applause for all our candidates this evening. Thank you for Wisconsin Watch for hosting, this is very important. And I hope that this isn't the last step. So with that said thank you to everyone, have a great evening.”

     Wild Bearies provided appetizers and refreshments.

     Wisconsin Humanities sponsored the event.