The big idea: In recent years, some tribes have reaped huge profits from their gambling operations. Most American Indians, however, are still mired in poverty, unemployment, addictions, ill health and hopelessness. Is there a way to create a better future in Indian Country? The Citizen Potawatomi Nation found the answer in strong leadership, self-rule and entrepreneurship.

The scenario: The Citizen Potawatomi Nation is a tribe of the Potawatomi people, about 10,000 of whom are based in Oklahoma. Like other Native Americans, the Potawatomis have lived with a legacy of broken treaties, land theft, destruction of natural resources, paternalism and federal policies aimed at the eradication of Native language and culture. Four decades ago, the tribe was in disarray. It had 2.5 acres of trust land, $500 in cash and a tribal headquarters in a run-down trailer.

The resolution: Things turned around under the leadership of John “Rocky” Barrett, who took the helm of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in 1973. As chairman of the tribal government, Barrett spearheaded the adoption of a new constitution and statutes that emphasized tribal self-determination under federal law and also held tribal officials accountable for their mistakes.

Barrett knew that supporting entrepreneurship was crucial to the economic revival of his tribe. His mind-set had helped to shape his own future. He’d worked in the oil industry, first as a roughneck at age 15, then as president of his own oil- and gas-production business. He was also president of an Angus cattle ranch.

Barrett’s focus on entrepreneurship and astute management of the tribal sovereignty that gave tribes a competitive edge under federal and state laws resulted in profitable enterprises and jobs. The Citizen Potawatomi Nation reinvested profits and poured them into education, housing, health care and social services.

To increase access to capital in Indian Country, Barrett and other leaders invited experts to Shawnee, Okla., to help launch the Citizen Potawatomi Community Development Corporation in 2003. It was driven by a mission to expand access to credit and financial services in disadvantaged markets. It provided business loans and small-business-development services, as well as consumer credit and other basic financial services to Native communities in Oklahoma.

All those changes led to stability, progress and prosperity, increasing tribal confidence and pride. Under Barrett’s leadership, the Citizen Potawatomi Nation had experienced more than 15 percent average annual revenue growth for 20 consecutive years.

Today, the Citizen Potawatomi Nation is the largest employer in Pottawatomie County. In addition to two casinos, the tribe owns FireLake Discount Foods, a golf course, a radio station, a truck stop, Rural Water District 3 (a public utility serving 800 customers) and First National Bank, the largest tribally owned bank in the United States, with close to $240 million in assets.

The lesson: For this tribe, a century-old decline ended when strong leaders reformed its government. By enabling access to capital and supporting entrepreneurship, the tribe powered its revival.

— Gosia Glinska

Glinska is a senior researcher at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. The “Case in Point” was adapted from an original Darden case by Gosia Glinska and Gregory B. Fairchild, an associate business professor.