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A careful distinction

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Is there a difference between socialism and indigenous economies? Socialism, as an economic system, emphasizes redistribution of wealth and collective ownership of the productive resources of the nation. Most contemporary indigenous communities engaged in a market economy probably do not believe they are taking up socialism, even though there are strong traditions for redistributing wealth.

During the Cold War, American Indian tribes were sometimes accused of socialist tendencies, providing one more reason to support termination policies that would bring Indian people into the American market economy as individuals, but not as nations. In recent years, the indigenous movement toward self-determination has renewed recognition of collective tribal land ownership and tribally owned and managed corporations and businesses. Nevertheless, some scholars do not distinguish between tribally organized business enterprises and socialism. This is unfortunate, since tribally owned enterprises are a distinctly different economic, political and cultural path than socialism or capitalism.

Karl Marx did not think that indigenous peoples would survive the global expansion of the market system. In his view, indigenous peoples would be economically and politically marginalized and end up as victims of the capitalist system. Certainly, one can make an argument for this, but it does not account for the survival of indigenous peoples to the 21st century and their national and international mobilization to gain respect for their rights.

Many contemporary socialist and Marxist arguments tend to focus on the marginalization of indigenous peoples, but not on their political, cultural and community resources for survival and transformation to changing world economic and political conditions. Marxism, socialism and many post-modern theories do not provide a vision of any future for indigenous peoples. Like the theories of assimilation and modernization, indigenous peoples are destined to disappear and join into the main trends of non-indigenous society and history.

Furthermore, socialism and Marxism suggest indigenous people are in a primitive state within the world;s evolution toward modern capitalist or socialist bureaucratic states. While Marx saw many virtues in the matrilineal and redistributive economy of the Haudenosaunee, he considered them a model of primitive socialism. When compared to modern socialism, the values and economic relations of indigenous peoples were not organized along scientifically efficient and innovative industrial production, which was the material basis for freeing human beings from want and creating the conditions for political and social ''liberation.'' Freedom could only be obtained through economic development and domination of the environment by harnessing nature's resources to supply human needs.

Most indigenous peoples would not deny that modern improvements of contemporary life are highly beneficial. Indigenous peoples living on their ancestral territories have been at the margin of benefiting from Western science and economy, and perhaps only some would be willing to return to traditional economies composed of nation-to-nation trading, hunting, farming and gathering. Nevertheless, American Indians have not fully embraced the theories and ways of capitalism or socialism.

An example of the indigenous reluctance to embrace socialism can be seen in the stories of South American peoples rejecting the socialist plans and vision of Che Guevara. The centralized economy, the exploitation of nature for production, centralized political organization, and the absence of respect for the spiritual world were some reasons indigenous peoples were not enticed to join socialist campaigns.

Yet, since the world has increasingly become a competitive market system, indigenous peoples have been reluctant to join in. Indigenous peoples make choices about engaging in market-based economies in ways that do not destroy their values, culture, community and political organization.

Indigenous peoples engage in the market economy in multiple, often overlapping, economic systems. In many places, such as northern Canada and isolated places in the United States, indigenous peoples continue to engage in a subsistence economy by hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering. Sometimes such activities result in selling surplus to traders, but often the subsistence economy supplements food requirements.

Some reservation communities have members who are engaged in businesses as cattlemen, commercial fishermen, or local owners of a retail enterprise. According to a 1997 U.S. Census survey, about 200,000 Indians in the United States reported being engaged in business ownership. The rate of individual Indian entrepreneurship is rapidly rising and most likely will continue to do so in the future.

Tribal control of reservation economic businesses, due mainly to gaming, constitutes by far the greatest economic activity in terms of business income. Tribal enterprises work with collective ownership of assets, often with per capita distributions, support for community values and culture, and support tribal sovereignty. Indigenous peoples approach economy from their own traditions and values, and strive to use economy as a means to sustain political and cultural autonomy. Indigenous economies steer paths that often move in different cultural, spiritual and political directions than classic forms of capitalism and socialism, and should be valued uniquely.