A special conversation with Chairman John R. Shotton (Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Oklahoma and Chairman, NAFSA, Board of Directors)
As part of our celebration of the Native American Financial Services Association’s (NAFSA) 10-year anniversary, we will be bringing you a series of conversations with leadership from NAFSA’s Board of Directors.
We are delighted to share this conversation between NAFSA Board of Directors Chairman, John R. Shotton (Chairman, Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Oklahoma) and NAFSA Chief Operations Officer Mika Leonard (Miami Tribe of Oklahoma)
Mika: Can you tell us about your Tribal Nation?
Chairman Shotton: The Otoe-Missouria Tribe is located in rural North Central Oklahoma, an hour and fifteen minutes from Tulsa, an hour and half from Oklahoma City, and about an hour and half from Wichita, Kansas. We have around 3300 enrolled members, with one-third of our membership residing in Noble County (where the Tribe is located), another third living throughout Oklahoma, and the remaining one third throughout the United States. We have quite a few Tribal members living in major cities like Chicago and Dallas, and we even have membership in Hawaii.
Mika: Prior to e-commerce, what were the primary economic development industries your Tribal Nation was involved in?
Chairman Shotton: Primarily, we began with smaller entities that served our local community. We had a convenience store and gas station, a small grocery store, and two smoke shops. In the early 80’s we were one of the first Tribes to have a bingo operation that at one time was quite large, but as more Tribes got into the industry, this started to dwindle. In the early 2000’s we opened a small casino, and once the compacts were made with the state, we had a class 3 gaming operation and bingo hall. We have since expanded our gaming and built a large casino on the Kansas border which also has an indoor water park, hotel, and conference center.
Mika: What initially prompted your nation to explore Tribal e-commerce and online financial services?
Chairman Shotton: The Otoe-Missouria Tribe is landlocked, and there is a lot of competition for gaming within Oklahoma. Even in our three-county area, there are six different Tribes that operate casinos. We wanted to figure out how to bring an economy to our Tribal location and population and decided to look to the internet. One of our Tribal members was working for a lending company and brought this idea and opportunity to the Tribe. That initial phone call led to what is now Caliber Financial Services.
Mika: What are some of the ways that the revenues generated from your e-commerce business are being used for your Nation and how do they help your Nation offset the shortfalls in federal funding from the US government?
Chairman Shotton: The Tribe receives grants from Federal, state, and non-profit sources, all of which have stipulations on how the funding is to be used. These stipulations often cause the funding to not meet the needs of our community. Economic development is needed to meet these shortfalls. The Tribe understands their own needs and concerns and uses the revenue from e-commerce to meet those needs. We have utilized revenues for things like daycare, services, elders services, general welfare services (housing, electricity, etc.), education, Head Start, cultural preservation and language revitalization. These were all things we couldn’t previously sufficiently fund.
Mika: How critical is Tribal e-commerce to your Tribal Nation’s long term economic development?
Chairman Shotton: Success of our e-commerce has been tremendous. It was second to gaming in the beginning, but gaming has stagnated somewhat due to our location and e-commerce has surpassed all other economic development industries. It is now the number one business providing revenue to the Tribe. This revenue allows the Tribal government to plan for the future.
Mika: In your opinion, what are some of the biggest challenges facing Tribal e-commerce?
Chairman Shotton: (Laughs) There’s a lot of them. Being regulated out of the business would be the biggest concern, whether from federal, state, or overall policy changes. This is a highly regulated industry, so anything that would disrupt this would be a huge impediment. Lawsuits from plaintiffs and Attorneys General who don’t understand sovereignty is also a big challenge and the cost to defend the Tribe in those lawsuits makes things difficult. Also, Tribes that are engaged in industry and don’t evolve within the industry are vulnerable to getting left behind.
Mika: What do you see the future of Tribal e-commerce being, both for your nation specifically, and Indian Country as a whole?
Chairman Shotton: Otoe started as a short-term lender and has steadily progressed (e.g., bringing operations in-house) and now they’re a full-fledged lender from every aspect. We have our own marketing, accounting, algorithms for how loans are made, back-of-the-house-system, and more. There is so much opportunity for Otoe and other Tribes who are engaged in financial services, so much opportunity that is untapped. As we look at ways for how additional economic development can be brought to Indian Country, other Tribes should look at e-commerce too. One major opportunity is investment in Tribal e-commerce. We (Tribes) leave so much on the table when we take our business outside of Indian Country.
Mika: Finally, is there anything specific you’d like to share about your Nation’s e-commerce business or your Tribal Nation?
Chairman Shotton: When we realized we needed to better serve the financial needs of our community, the Otoe-Missouria Tribe opened our own credit union, and we are looking at other banking opportunities. The more we learn, the more opportunity there is. We just need to bring in the right expertise and the right people. The work we do at NAFSA is so important as so many Tribes are looking for opportunities when they are handicapped by their location or other factors. They can come to NAFSA and learn more about legitimate potential partners and be mentored by other Tribes. One of the things I’m most proud of is that other Tribes come to us for help. They ask us for input. Otoe can provide this expertise and help others in Indian Country. This business is a lifeline that provides for our people.
John R. Shotton is the current Chairman of the Native American Financial Services Association and is also the Chairman of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Indians. He has served in that capacity since being elected in November 2007. Prior to being elected to the office of Chairman, he served on the Tribal Council as the First Member for two years. Chairman Shotton is a member of the Owl Clan and belongs to the Otoe Eloska Society as well as the Red Rock Creek Gourd Dancers.
Chairman Shotton holds a Bachelor of Business Administration and a Master of Public Administration Degree from the University of Oklahoma. Prior to serving the Otoe-Missouria Tribe, Chairman Shotton worked for the University of Oklahoma’s American Indian Institute developing and administering programs for tribes across the United States. In 2012, Chairman Shotton was recognized as one of the “Native American 40 under 40” by the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development.