The State of Indian Economic Development

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Winnebago leaders, for example, say that the role of culture has long factored into their contemporary economic decision-making.

“As early as 1989 efforts were made to identify ways to create jobs and provide money for the tribe,” according to the tribe’s Web site. “A driving force behind these efforts was Reuben Snake (Kikawa Unga), a Winnebago political and spiritual leader. Reuben encouraged the tribe to find new ways to provide jobs and to make profitable business entities, while also respecting the ways of the past and tribal tradition and culture.”

All in all, it’s a business framework that would probably make Donald Trump squirm.

“Economic development for American Indians is really very different than for other ethnic minority groups,” says Begay, who is of Navajo descent. “We hold different things sacred and we also sometimes hold similar things sacred.” (For many years prior to the 2000s, many members of the Navajo Nation resisted casino development on the basis of cultural objections.)

“The strategy that’s selected by various tribes would need to consider what the cultural implications are for going one route over another,” says Begay.

Simply put, Native Americans appear to have different goals than the average American. According to a study conducted by Harvard University, the most commonly self-reported goals of Native nations in the arena of economic development are not wealth and capitalistic riches. Instead, tribes often pursue economic development in order to have the freedom to control their own political, cultural and social destinies, and to have the ability to sustain communities where their citizens can and want to live.

But decisions aren’t always so crystal clear. Cornish notes that it can sometimes be very difficult for tribes to contemplate the role of culture in the context of their economic decision-making. “There’s nothing in Indian Country that isn’t controversial,” he says. “Especially in economic development.”

For instance, some tribes that have uranium resources under their reservations have been very reluctant to mine it in reverence to the Earth, although there is a feeling among some tribal members that the federal government might get involved, if Indians don’t act soon.

“It’s a tough situation,” reflects Cornish. “It’s easiest enough to say that a tribe needs to establish cultural parameters, but it’s much harder in practice.”

In the uranium mining situation, Cornish suggests that tribes try to get “a full education of the industry,” rather than ignoring it and hoping that the federal government won’t one day interfere.

Leadership Constraints

Once a tribe has dipped its collective toes into the economic development waters – whether via a casino, tribal business, and/or support for Native entrepreneurs – leadership becomes a key ingredient in creating successful and sustained economic development, according to several researchers.

But good leadership doesn’t come easy. Many tribal leaders have lacked educational opportunities, have never held a job, or have only held “work until the grant runs out” jobs, according to Kalt.

“Of those that have substantial work experience, much of this has typically been in government rather than business,” he says. “With more control of tribal government comes increased responsibility and accountability. While leaders are seeing the consequences of their decisions and actions and learning from these experiences, more effort and opportunity must be directed to the capacity of tribal leadership.”

“Recent economic growth in Indian Country is fragile, particularly so because it is founded on powers of self-determination that are under constant attack from certain state and federal quarters and because maintenance of such powers is not under the unilateral control of Native nations,” according to a section of The State of the Native Nations. “It is not coincidence that economic development has taken root where and when long-standing federal ‘project’ and ‘grant’ approaches to development have been replaced by tribes’ assertions of self-rule in the economic arena.”

Begay says that pressure is increasingly felt on the shoulders of Indian governments to put in place the institutional infrastructures needed to channel human and financial resources into productive activities, so that the community is working to add to the economic “pie,” rather than squabbling over how to divide the pie.

“There is a need to develop good political institutions to allow for economic development to take off,” says Begay. “Many tribes currently have governing structures that do not mesh very well with the contemporary needs and challenges of Indian nations.”

Cornish suggests that more tribal leaders should be making partnerships with outside contractors to fill certain tribal business positions, at least in the short term. “Putting less than fully qualified tribal people in managerial roles isn’t a good idea,” he says. “Tribes have to determine that if they’re going to be successful, they have to hire the best talent. Then, they can get a return on their investment by having tribal members job-shadow and learn the ropes.”

More than one researcher interviewed for this story said that tribal politics should be kept separate from day-to-day government decision-making and management in bureaucratic and business affairs. Comparative research involving multiple tribal leadership styles has found that successful economic development is most likely to occur when tribes effectively assert their sovereignty and back up such assertions with capable and culturally appropriate institutions of self-government.

“Where these tribal government-oriented attributes are absent, tribal assets such as an educated citizenry, natural resources, and the like are more often squandered, failing to deliver sustainable economic performance or lasting improvements in community welfare,” according to Kalt’s research.

In the case of Ho-Chunk, Inc., the leaders of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. Winnebago chartered it with the explicit admonition that “Ho-Chunk, Inc. was established so that tribal business operations would be free from political influence and outside the bureaucratic process of the government.”

Other tribes, like the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, have instituted outside boards to focus specifically on tribal economic development. Such a board is intended to encourage the use of outside business expertise and an emphasis on profitability over job creation and can, in turn, isolate a tribe’s business enterprise from political interference.

“Strategic thinking is not to occur in a vacuum by the tribal council,” says Begay. “Multiple steps should be taken to make sure the tribal council is acting strategically.”

Moving Forward

Continuing to push for economic independence won’t be easy in the years to come, but most everyone agrees it must be done—and done, some say, with even less financial support from the federal government.

“The 1990s saw substantial improvement in many tribal citizens’ material welfare and fiscal health – independent of federal program spending,” according to The State of the Native Nations. “Maintaining and expanding this rate of growth is clearly critical to the long-term economic health of Native America. Rates of unemployment and poverty remain unacceptably high and suggest much productive economic potential within.”

Cornish takes the independence thought a step further, saying that some tribal leaders are currently much too dependent on federal government payments. “One day soon those payments could be gone,” he says. “Being a leader means planning for that possibility.”

Cornish says that part of the change that still has to occur is getting more tribes to focus on self-determination. “Federal funding should be like training wheels,” he says. “You’ve got to get them off. Or else you’re never going to be on your own.”

And then there’s another problem: As tribal economic success stories become more commonplace – and as tribes learn to manage the growth via new leadership mechanisms – increasing numbers of leaders are worried that future generations will leave their reservation homes and Indian communities, which could hamper the economic continuum.

“Tribes are working harder than ever before at harvesting kids who have left Indian Country to get an education,” says Cornish. “Many of these kids have scored degrees from some of the best schools in the nation.”

From his experience, many students are coming back after graduation.

Chief Philip Martin, an elder with the Mississippi Choctaw, long ago predicted that fate after once being asked by an audience of non-Indian university students how the phenomenal economic development at Mississippi Choctaw was affecting Choctaw culture.

After contemplating the question, Chief Martin replied honestly: “Well, it used to be that everyone moved away, but now they’re all coming back.”