Images courtesy of Intertribal Bison Council.
During President Reagan’s budget-slashing years in the 1980s, American Indian governments were especially hard hit, facing even greater cutbacks than the rest of the country in federal dollars for health, education, and business development. Tribes were forced into finding economic alternatives to address the deepening poverty brought on by Reaganomics.
There was little to build on in Indian Country. Trailer parks, jewelry and other craft stands for tourists, and humble bingo halls that only appealed to reservation community members could never form the foundation of a strong tribal economy.
Given the federal government’s responsibility to tribes, based on treaties, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, authorizing tribes to construct casinos. This was seen as the most promising solution to end federal government dependency by promoting economic self-sufficiency.
But nearly three decades later, most of the more than 500 federally recognized tribal nations have not seen the payoff of Vegas-style gaming. Today, the unemployment rate among American Indians is still nearly double that of the national average. One in four Indians continue to live in poverty.
The reality is that Indian gaming has not been a panacea. Only those few tribes located next to urban centers like Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Detroit, and San Diego have been able to rake in big revenue.
“What makes for a successful casino? Geography and population,” says Joe Kalt, co-founder and co-director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.
“Since the vast majority of reservations are in much more rural areas, many tribes have small gaming operations. Some year-round truck drivers come through or summer tourists visit, but it really provides only a little cash flow for tribal government services.”
Rural reservation life also suffers from other business development barriers. There is the absence of trade routes that carry consumer goods. There is the poor infrastructure (especially telecommunications). Banks are reluctant to lend to individuals or start-up businesses because they have next-to-no collateral. Reservation land is not owned by tribes or private citizens; it is trust land owned by the federal government.
Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, a legislative advocacy organization made up of more than 250 tribes, says federal policies are another huge hindrance.
“Tribes must wrestle with outdated and unfair laws and policies that put them at a competitive disadvantage and restrict their ability to fully grasp the reins of their economic futures,” she says.
“Federal law currently does not allow tribal governments the use of critical tools, such as surety bonds and tax exempt bonds that state and local governments have long relied on to seed economic development and job opportunities.”
Even seeking to do business with small contractors, such as construction companies, becomes problematic. Because tribes are sovereign nations, they are generally immune to off-reservation lawsuit rulings. If a business, Indian or non-Native, runs into contractual problems with a tribal government, it can only make an appeal to a tribal court, whose judges are usually hand-picked by the tribal council. Many companies won’t even bother doing business with a tribe because, if a dispute arises, seeking recourse through the tribal court system can be futile.
Finally, when it comes to realizing the dream of tribal economic self-sufficiency, history often stands in the way. When the federal government set up the reservation system a century ago, it imposed oppressive governments on tribes.
“This is really deep historical trauma,” Kalt says. “Tribes got saddled with governmental structures that weren’t of their own making. They had no legitimacy to the people, and they weren’t culturally appropriate. Quite often what you find today is political instability. You want to screw up your economy? Screw up your government.”
Image courtesy Intertribal Bison Council
But there have been some hopeful developments.
According to a February report on the challenges of commercial lending in Indian Country by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, some tribes have been successful in “asset-based development.” This involves building businesses using the tribes’ natural resources—including minerals, wildlife, and forests—and their cultural and intellectual property.
The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians provides nearly 6,000 jobs for tribal and non-Native community members in areas including manufacturing, retail sales, and tourism. The band’s annual payroll tops $100 million. Since 2008, Alaska Native regional corporations have earned just over $5 billion, largely through federal construction and manufacturing contracts provided to minority-owned businesses.
Since the majority of tribes know they will never build huge corporate portfolios, they are looking deeper within their own communities to find economic opportunities. Rather than trying to lure corporate America into coming to them, tribes are investing in their own people through job creation using what limited resources they have at home.
The Red Lake Band of Chippewa in northern Minnesota has built a fishery business that offers decent-paying jobs for tribal members and income to the tribe. It features a sustainable harvesting plan that won’t deplete the fish population, and worldwide marketing and distribution.
Samuel Strong, the tribe’s director of planning and economic development, says about 500 community members catch and sell walleye and other fish to the Red Lake Nation Fishery, which provides about fifty jobs to members. Fish are among the most important resources on the reservation.
“Fishing is in our blood. We refer to our lake as our storehouse. It provides a means for our livelihood and it allows us to control those means for our people.”
The tribe began providing fish for sale to the federal government in order to feed military servicemen during the two World Wars. But decades of illegal angling and selling on the black market nearly wiped out the lake’s fish population by the late 1990s. Working with the state’s Department of Natural Resources, the tribe banned fishing in order to repopulate the lake. Though this was a severe economic hardship on tribal members who relied on harvesting and selling the fish, most agreed this was needed to save not just the fish, but a traditional way of life.
In 2006, the lake was opened up again to harvesting. “Because we work with the DNR to make sure fishing remains sustainable, the harvest will now be available in perpetuity,” Strong says.
“This allows us to provide for future generations. Teaching our kids through living this way of life promotes a cycle of reciprocity that is critical to our success.”
A student at Taos Day School, New Mexico. Image courtesy of Intertribal Bison Council.
Merging sustainability with preserving traditional ways has spawned a new economic model in recent years, one built on tribal control.
Since the 1990s, many Plains tribes have had successful intertribal cooperatives in the areas of buffalo restoration and Indian agriculture. The InterTribal Buffalo Council, with fifty-eight member tribes in nineteen states, in 1992 launched a plan to bring the sacred bison back to reservation land for cultural, subsistence, and spiritual purposes. That effort became one of the country’s most successful natural resource restoration projects.
“This is all about the tribes,” says Dianne Amiotte-Seidel, the council’s project director and marketing coordinator.
“We are bringing all the tribes together as one, because they have the same belief in one thing, and that’s the buffalo.”
The council manages a collective herd of more than 15,000 buffalo. Its goal is to engage in education and training programs on herd management and marketing. It works with the National Park Service to relocate surplus bison to tribal land, and provides buffalo meat to reservation people.
“When they took the buffalo away from tribes and gave them food commodities instead, Indian people developed a lot of health problems like diabetes and obesity,” Amiotte-Seidel says. “Now, in addition to restoring the buffalo, we are helping to restore Native health by putting buffalo meat in elderly and diabetes programs, and in our school lunchrooms.”
Students from the Blackfeet Nation, Montana, Observe the buffalo parts that their ancestors utilized many years ago. Images courtesy of Intertribal Bison Council.
Tribal control, Kalt says, is key to creating sustainable economic development. Since the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development began conducting research in 1987, all the data on what makes business work in Indian Country points to tribal self-determination.
“In the era before the Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975, overbearing federal control was killing economic development on reservations,” Kalt says. “You practically couldn’t build a bowling alley without the federal government’s approval. But since the passage there has been a rebuilding of governments, an exercising of sovereignty—and economic development is finally taking hold in more and more Indian nations. But self-determination isn’t a blank check. It’s the tribes that have figured out their own systems for governing themselves well that are developing economically.”
While research shows that such economic activities as gaming and manufacturing promote traditional culture and the recovery of indigenous language by providing the financial resources to back these efforts, there is a movement among many Indian communities to go even further in their cultural and economic histories. How did their ancestors devise an economy without disrupting the natural landscape?
At the Tyonek Alaskan Native village, located forty-five miles west from Anchorage across Cook Inlet, community members have been “growing local” for the past three years in an effort to bring back traditional gardening practices. It’s an attempt to provide their people with sustenance and to revive ancient culture as well.
“We are an ‘off the road’ community,” says Christy Cincotta, executive director of the Tyonek Tribal Conservation District, one of thirteen such districts in Alaska. “Any food that is not from the community has to get flown in and it is expensive, and often not fresh. Elders remember having vegetable gardens, but that has faded over time. It’s lost knowledge.”
The district runs a garden project to create raised beds, solar-powered irrigation, and ventilation systems. Native youth interns tend the community garden, which is expanding each year in size. And interest from villagers and surrounding non-Native communities is growing.
“We want to make sure we can provide jobs so that the project can sustain itself,” Cincotta says. Elders and youth are the first beneficiaries come harvest season, but Cincotta says a substantial quantity of vegetables are sold outside the community.
“People are excited to support this because they know money is staying in their community and not going to a grocery store in Anchorage. And they know where [their food] came from. No harsh chemicals are being used, only renewable energy in a sustainable way.”
Paul DeMain, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, harvests maple syrup and gathers wild onions. He says making money is not the first priority when it comes to building a sustainable business. “First, there is family helping to harvest maple syrup and wild rice. Next, this food is used for spiritual, ceremonial, and medicinal use.”
DeMain believes more can be done to support Native harvesters on the economic level. He would like local food markets to buy Indian-owned sustainable products, and for more public schools to open their cafeterias to Indian vendors. “But in order to do that, our venison and our walleye have to meet USDA health standards,” he says. “Right now, the tapping of maple trees and harvesting of wild rice are not considered farming by the federal government. We need to get language in the Farm Bill to support us.”
But no one knows how much support American Indian tribes can count on from Congress and the federal government. Some wonder whether Indian nations will have time to pull themselves out of poverty before federal-Indian policy swings back against their economic efforts.
“Sometime in the late 1990s, there was a massive shift in the way Congress deals with tribes,” Kalt says.
“The Democrats still tend to support spending on tribal issues and tribal sovereignty as forms of social justice. The Republicans, however, have shifted from a party of small government and strong defense for local self-rule—including tribal local self-rule—to a party of social conservatism that tends to see tribal sovereignty as merely special race-based rights for Indians, regardless of the fact that tribal sovereignty is founded on the Constitution and Treaties.”
This might mean tribes could find themselves subject to policies that do more than inhibit growth. They could be subject to policies that derail self-sufficient economies for their people.
Mark Anthony Rolo is an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians. He is the author of the memoir My Mother Is Now Earth.