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The Role of Tribal Governments in Economic Development

What is the role of a tribal government in economic development?

Tribal economic development is my area of expertise. I believe that economic development is the answer to all the problems plaguing Indian country. In America, money is our religion. For many Americans, money is pursued as a means to achieve their preferred lifestyle. Unfortunately, Americans are shortsighted because their pursuit of money is often meant to achieve material possessions. Indian nations have had since time immemorial the responsibility to protect the seven generations. Indian nations do not have the luxury of being materialistic. Poverty is a suffocating force within Indian country. I believe the pursuit of economic development is the answer to our societal problems in Indian country.

Money is a means, it is not the objective. My colleagues and I have discussed at length the need for capital accumulation in Indian country. Indian peoples do not have access to the types of capital necessary to achieve their preferred lifestyle. The reality for many Indians is rather bleak when it comes to their financial independence. Poverty has such a crushing effect on people of color that it leads to other societal problems. In my opinion, poverty in Indian country is directly linked to substance abuse, low achievement and apathy. When there is no money, why should a young Indian dream any dreams? These two questions my colleague, Francisco Olea, posed are the one-two punch to solve the poverty issues plaguing Indian country.

So, what is the role of a tribal government in economic development? I believe, initially, the tribal government should serve as the main economic driver in Indian country. Modern tribal governments more or less play this role now. The most common example is Indian casinos. Tribal governments pursue their economic policies based upon what is readily available, i.e. natural resource development or gaming.

The problem with this model is that the tribal government then concedes to political pressure and distributes that revenue in what is known as a per capita payment. “Per cap Indians” is a running joke in Indian country. While it is nice to have a check in the mail, per capita payments tend to promote apathy and the lack of achievement. Why should an Indian work if he gets a check in the mail? He doesn’t. If tribal governments provide subsidies to their members, there is no incentive to work. Tribal governments should not enable their members to expect a government handout. Tribal governments should promote entrepreneurialism in Indian country. Small business is the backbone of American economics. The same can be said for Indian country.

This leads me to the next question posed by my colleague, Mr. Olea.

  1. What is the role of a tribal government in the development of social, economic and cultural institutions?

Tribal governments should initially act as the economic driver in Indian country. Once there is a steady revenue stream, tribal governments should then empower their members to pursue their own entrepreneurship. Indian country is home to some of the most beautiful landscapes in America. Every Indian describes their reservation as “God’s Country.” Most of America is slowly realizing that their quality of life is largely a result of where they live. Americans consistently relocate to other parts of the country to make a better life for themselves and their children. Indians do not really have the choice of leaving their homelands like other Americans. This is largely because of the sacrifices our ancestors made to leave some heritage behind for us to build upon, which is mostly land. It’s always about the land.

Indian country can be a destination for many travelers. The only issue is that there is not much to do while in Indian country. For most Indians, this is preferable. Most Indians do not want to share their homelands with non-Indians. It usually doesn’t work out well for our people (Montana v. United States anyone?). However, there is something to be said about attracting outside consumers to Indian country.

Tribal governments should create legal regimes that make the most of the opportunities Indian country provides. Outdoor recreation is the obvious example. I have traveled extensively throughout the United States. I typically look for local small businesses to experience the best that that rural community has to offer. I like local breweries and restaurants because of the opportunity to experience local flavor. Indian country sadly lacks even minimum choices in this arena. A tribal government should empower its members to open small businesses to provide those choices to consumers. Traffic promotes investment into infrastructure. That investment ought to lead to good-paying jobs. Jobs are the means for many Indians to escape poverty.

The issue I have is that tribal economic development should derive from the tribal government’s sovereignty. Tribal governments often lack capital to engage in economic development. I would advise tribal governments to create economic development with their sovereignty, instead of taking it how others want to give it. Tribal governments are often forced to guarantee their business loans at terrible contractual terms. Non-Indian entrepreneurs do not have to place themselves at such a disadvantage.

I believe that whatever a non-Indian government can do, a tribal government can do better. Tribal governments should look to drafting business friendly codes such as corporate codes and tax incentives. Tribal codes should create not replicate. For instance, I have a problem with the current marijuana compacts being completed in Indian country. States have forced tribal governments to agree to terms that are inconsistent with the idea of tribal sovereignty. States force tribes to enter into marijuana compacts that treat tribal governments as private entrepreneurs instead of legitimate governments that regulate marijuana responsibly. When a tribal government is the only allowable entrepreneur in the marijuana business in Indian country that would be “consistent with state law,” then how is that tribal government any different than the private non-Indian marijuana entrepreneur? The short answer is it’s not. The tribal government is the equivalent to a state licensee. This set-up is antithetical to tribal sovereignty.

Tribal governments should create local economies with their laws. It is their God-given right. When tribal governments empower their members, Indian country wins. The best way to empower their members is to set the right example. Economic development should be promoted through financial literacy and proper investment. Tribal members are the key to economic development in Indian country. We just need to make it a priority. In the immortal words of Sam Deloria, “we can’t teach you how to be an Indian, your people have to do that.” Your people can also teach you how to be a good businessman. Olea, Solórzano & Austin, LLC can teach you as well.

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