April 08, 2002 12:00 PM

Lance Morgan steers his black Audi to the top of a hill on Nebraska’s Winnebago Indian reservation, the better to view a huge, muddy field dotted with trucks and building material. It’s not a pretty site right now, but Morgan is looking at the future. “See the tree line?” he asks, pointing to the upper boundary of what will be a 150-unit housing project, the reservation’s first subdivision. “It goes all the way up there.”

A decade ago Winnebago, 80 miles north of Omaha, was going nowhere. The bleak 28,000-acre reservation, home to 1,600 people, had 70 percent unemployment and only one business: the B & H Bar. Now Winnebago is on the rebound thanks largely to Morgan, 33, the brash mastermind of Ho-Chunk Inc., a tribe-owned corporation that has parlayed modest profits from a tribe-run casino into a diversified company with 275 employees and annual revenues of $50 million. In December Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government gave HCI a prestigious $100,000 award in recognition of its success; now HCI is widely seen as a model that could help other tribes lift themselves from poverty. “People have hope,” says John Blackhawk, 47, chairman of the tribal council, “and that has a snowball effect.”

Morgan—the oldest of three children of Dwight, 57, a Czech-American roofer, and his Winnebago Indian wife, Pearl, 54—was just a few years out of Harvard Law School when the tribe hired him in 1995 to find a way to capitalize on the gambling profits. Working alone out of his apartment—then adding employees as the venture grew—he put the money into hotels, shopping centers, gas stations and Web businesses, eventually building a profitable company that helped slash unemployment on the reservation to less than 20 percent. “They are in an isolated location,” says Judi Gaiashkibos, director of the Nebraska Indian commission, “yet they have been able to diversify their business to a global market.” Patricia McGinnis, president of the group that administers the Innovations in American Government Award, says that Morgan has moved his tribe from gambling “into a healthier set of business. It allows them to preserve their culture and move into a high-tech future.”

Down the road from the residential project, a new office building houses two HCI Web businesses, an Indian-news site and another that sells $250,000 worth of Native American-produced wares—from blankets to music CDs—a month. Morgan says some 40 acres will be filled with light-industrial enterprises, houses and shops in the next year. “It was so desperate before,” says Deb Parker, who works with children in the Whirling Thunder Wellness Program. “Now they are proud to be Winnebago.”

Growing up poor in Omaha, Morgan yearned for a better life. He showed an entrepreneurial bent early on, traveling to powwows to sell snow cones. “To me it was serious business,” recalls Morgan, who at 6 was helping out after school on his father’s roofing jobs. Living in a neighborhood he calls the Omaha ghetto, he longed to emulate Alex Keaton, the Michael J. Fox character on the sitcom Family Ties. “That was me,” he says. “I aspired to be a Republican.” One other TV-induced dream: He wanted to be a rich lawyer like the ones he saw on L.A. Law.

Morgan attended the University of Nebraska, where he studied economics and dated Erin Morse, whom he had met at an Omaha amusement park when both were in high school. (They married in 1997.) Seeking a lucrative legal career—and not much more—he applied and was admitted to Harvard Law School in 1990. His first job at a large corporate law firm in Minneapolis, was a poor fit. “I had an image of success that revolved around money, big houses, fancy cars,” he says. “But once I had some of those things, it wasn’t me—I felt like I could make more of a difference in my community.” Then Blackhawk a family friend, approached him in 1994 about running Ho-Chunk Inc. (whose moniker comes from a name for the Winnebago tribe). “He was energetic,” says Blackhawk, who was also swayed by the fact that Morgan’s mother is Winnebago. “And he was willing to take a challenge.”

For Morgan, who lives in a five-bedroom house in nearby South Sioux City with Erin, 32—CEO of HCI’s Native American-goods business, AllNative.com—and daughters Emma, 3, and Alaina, 1, the next challenge will be to share his expertise. He plans to use the Harvard award to help educate other Native Americans about HCI, whose main goal, he says, is not to make money, but to lift the community in ways large and small. “It’s hard to put a monetary value on that,” he says. “It’s satisfying well beyond dollars.”

•Thomas Fields-Meyer

•Trine Tsouderos in Winnebago

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