SHAWNEE — While many Oklahoma Indian tribes struggle to control and manage their gaming enterprises, the Citizen Potawatomi Nation has used theirs to create a diverse financial portfolio that includes a huge grocery store, a golf course, banks and entertainment venues.
In the early 1970s, the tribe had almost nothing. Its trust land had dwindled. The tribe's bank account had a balance of less than $600.
But then things changed.
In 1971, the tribe's current chairman, John “Rocky” Barrett, was first elected to office. Once in a position of power, he acted swiftly to make changes within the tribal government, eventually running an administration that championed sovereignty and shrewdly exploited advantages afforded to Indian tribes as separate, independent nations.
As the changes took hold, the tribe began to turn things around. With the coming of Indian gaming, which was initially permitted in 1987 following a Supreme Court ruling, the Citizen Potawatomi Nation began to flourish.
Gaming quickly made the Potawatomis rich, but the tribe became wealthy by diversifying its portfolio.
Today, the tribe owns FireLake Discount Foods, billed as the largest tribally owned grocery store in the United States. The 84,000-square-foot store is visible from the tribe's headquarters on Gordon Cooper Drive and features a bakery, deli, drive-thru smoke shop and a built-in dollar-store.
To be able to compete against other grocery store companies, Barrett said he buys all of his food from Texas, in bulk. He partners with other independent businesses and grocers to buy products in larger quantities in order to remain competitive.
The tribe also owns First National Bank and Trust Company, including a branch in Shawnee, right out in front of the government administration building.
All together, the tribe's banking business contains branches in Shawnee, Holdenville, Granite, Mangum and two in Lawton.
According to the tribe's website, First National Bank and Trust Co. is the “largest tribally owned national bank in the United States.”
A gift shop featuring authentic goods made by American Indians, a company that designs and makes corporate apparel and signage and Kool Gold KGFF, an AM radio station, are some of the Potawatomis' other holdings.
The tribe also has constructed ball fields and converted another building into a bowling alley. In the future, Barrett said tourism attractions will be built to continue the tribe's upward trajectory.
“We see gaming as having a life ... it's a curve,” Barrett said.
“When Internet gaming is approved and you'll able to sit in your lounger and play a slot machine ... people aren't going to just want to go to a building that has slot machines in it. They're going to want to go out for an evening of entertainment. Eat. See a show ... and then possibly gamble.”
Barrett has had some bad experiences with the gaming industry through the years. One of his key economic principles, it seems, is not to rely too heavily on gaming to provide a steady, never-ending stream of revenue.
Standing out in front of the tribe's Shawnee offices Wednesday morning, in the cold wind, Barrett squinted and looked out across his small empire at Hardesty Road and Gordon Cooper Drive.
“It won't last forever,” he said of gaming revenue. “One day, people will be allowed to sit around in their underwear and (gamble) from home. No, it won't last forever. Not even close.”