Five years ago when it opened high on a grassy bluff overlooking the junction of the Missouri and Grand rivers here, the Chief Gall Inn created an air of expectation among the members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.
The magnificent tepee-shaped luxury motel, proud against the Northern Plains skyline, was the most impressive structure for 100 miles in any direction. Encouraged and funded with a grant from the Commerce Department's Economic Development Administration, the motel was the tribe's first venture into the promising tourist business.
Last year the 43-room motel was nailed shut after running up $100-to-$200-a-day losses. Instead of a booming tourist business, the Indians here have been left with a $2.5 million white elephant, a sizable debt and another layer of bitterness and frustration over Washington's promises.
"When that damned thing opened people around here expected employment and industry to rise," Al Whitellightning, a young Standing Rock Sioux tribal leader recalled bitterly. "They expected a lot."
Unhappy as the Chief Gall Inn experience has been to people here it is by no means unique in the annals of EDA-financed Indian tourist failures. Of the dozen Indian-owned motels and hotels funded by the agency, two are closed and all are running in the red.
In fact; since EDA's Indian desk began making tourist business loans and grants in 1967 the agency has shelled out $61 million for 63 projects. A Ford Foundation study of the program last year estimated the various EDA-backed enterprises had run up an operating deficit of over $20 million with operating losses - many charged to sponsor tribes - or $10,000 a day for the dozen Indian motels and hotels.
A second Indian self-help program funded by EDA has hardly fared better. The agency spent nearly $20 million to build 41 industrial parks on reservations. Occupancy rates for the parks are running around 5 percent and a number of business that used them have bailed out in disgust.
"A lot of reservations don't make any economic sense at all in terms of where they are located," explained an EDA official connected with the program.
Still a third program - this one to build shopping centers on reservations - is just getting under way with one recently completed in Montana and another starting in North Dakota.
The most serious failure, however, has been in the government's efforts to get the Indians launched in the tourist business.
Here on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation the Chief Gall Inn stands deserted, a sort of solitary testimonial to the myriad problems both federal funders and Indians have encountered along the tourism trial.
The resort is eight miles north of Sitting Bull's grave. Chief Gall, a minor leader of the forces that wiped out Custer's troops at Little Big Horn, is buried several miles to the north in an Episcopal cemetery. There is little else to draw tourists to the area and the only bridge linking the reservation to non-Indian land is under construction and often closed for days at a time.
According to tribal members here, if there was difficulty to be found it occurred during the tumultuous career of the inn. Some tribal members here are quick to list:
A location 150 miles off the nearest interstate or major tourist route. Mobridge, the nearest town, is a small farming community with an ample supply of accommodations.
Chronic electrical and water difficulties that occasionally forced the tribe to truck in water from Mobridge at great expense. On other occasions the heat and lights went out on winter nights when the temperature went down to 50 below zero.
A certain lack of communication between Indians and whites in relation to the project.At least one of the tribe's district councils has gone on record opposing the whole idea of the tribe being involved in tourism. Says another tribal official: "What the EDA wanted us to do was put on our buckskins and sit alongside of the road with our beads. They wanted us to perform like clowns to the white people so they could throw their nickels and dimes at us."
Other tribal officials claimed that Indians shunned the motel because they felt there were too many whites around and whites stayed away because there were too many Indians there.
"It was a failure to begin with," said Whitelightning. "Now we're stuck with it.
Despite its problems, the chief Gall Inn is not the most spectacular EDA-financed failure. On the Crow Creek Sioux reservation in South Dakota, EDA spent about $1 miilion on a "tribal complex" of stores, a bar, a campground, a restaurant and a reconstructed prairie fort all clustered around a motel.
The problems became so overwhelming, and the operating losses so heavy, that the tribe had the motel sawed in half. One half was trucked to the state capital at Pierre where it was sold for $28,000. The complex left the tribe with an operating loss of $668.000.
"There's no question that this whole thing just hasn't worked," said Harry G. Clement, the tourist consultant who compiled the Ford Foundation's report on the EDA Indian tourism project.
"There's plenty of guilt to go around for everyone concerned." Clement said. "But the initial fault lies with EDA. They are professionals and they should have seen that some of these projects didn't make sense."
The Clement report has struck an uncomfortable chord at EDA. The agency has designated a task force to look into the findings and Ray Tanner, head of EDA's Indian desk, declines to comment on the Clement study.
Tanner, whose office here is filled with Indian memorabilia, defends the tourism project as one that was conceived with the aim of building self reliance on reservations that, in many cases, have been totally dependent on non-Indian aid.
The nub of the problem, he said, is not with EDA but with the consultants hired by various tribes to do feasibility studies on resort projects they were seeking. Despite the size and duration of EDA's Indian tourism program, Tanner said his agency has no experts in the area.
"We supply the bricks and mortar and we rely on other agencies to supply the know-how," he said.
In at least three cases, according to a knowledgeable source, EDA funded projects whose feasibility was assured by consultants who worked for free on the promise they would get the architecture and construction contracts once the projects were approved.
"We know about that," Tanner said, "and we are no longer allowing the tribes to use those people."
The nature of the tourist business is such, Tanner said, that it takes time to build up a successful resort. He said that while all the EDA-funded projects now lose money at least some of them will eventually be financially successful.
However, critics of the program, including Clement, estimate that it will cost nearly $70 million just to place the dozen Indian resort motels in a position to make money. And even then the resorts cannot be assured of success.
"Right now they're all losers," said Hilary Osborn, executive director of the American Indian Travel Commission, a Denver-based group set up to try to rescue some of the failing resort projects.
Osborn's group has reshuffled some of the management practices of Indian resorts, particularly those that have been relying on long-term vacationers in rural reservation locations.
"There was a strong misconception on nearly everyone's part," he said. "People thought the tourists would come to those resorts and stay there just because of the Indian mystique. It didn't happen."
In his critique of the program Clement pointed out that eight of the 10 EDA-funded resorts still open lack daytime activities for tourists and all 10 are barren of night-time tourist entertainment.
"There is not enough going on in the evenings," Clement notes, "to entertain a dog."
So the Indian Travel Commission has begun advising tribes to shift their emphasis to small business conventions. These groups, said Osborn, an Eastern Cherokee, are more likely to fill up the motels for longer periods of time.
"They do have one thing going for them." Osborn added with a chuckle. "A lot of those resorts are so isolated that if you hold a business meeting there no one's going to slip out and go into town for some fun."