On Tuesday, leaders from across Indian Country gathered in front of the U.S. Capitol for the New Day Now rally, hosted by the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development during our Reservation Economic Summit (RES). Designed to affirm and advance economic development for Native Americans, the rally also provides a venue to raise our collective voices to ensure our message is heard by policymakers. Following the rally, participants further drove home their message through two Capitol Hill sessions focusing on topics key to Indian Country.
One of the topics at the sessions was the full implementation of the Buy Indian Act, which is symbolic of the broken promises that have too often defined our relationship with the federal government.
Originally signed into law by President Taft in 1910, it took over 100 years for the Buy Indian Act to be implemented. The legislation addressed a critical need: boosting economic development for Native Americans by requiring the Bureau of Indian Affairs to purchase from and contract with Native-owned businesses.
Problem is, the Bureau of Indian Affairs didn’t get around to writing the rules for and implementing the legislation until 2013. Though the administration and assistant secretary Kevin Washburn specifically deserve credit for dusting off the century-old legislation, there are still questions about how effectively and widespread the Buy Indian Act is being used and deployed to the benefit of Indian Country. These concerns persist despite President Obama’s 2014 pledge to increase Buy Indian Act purchasing by 10 percent.
Similar to the long implementation schedule of the Buy Indian Act, the Department of Commerce has yet to fully fund or elevate its own Office of Native American Affairs, even though two separate laws to promote the office were passed by Congress in the 2000s. Fully funding and boosting the stature of this office will be a huge benefit for Native businesses, specifically by making it easier to establish Free Trade Zones.
The fact that the Senate Indian Affairs Committee is holding hearings on one of these programs during RES DC is certainly welcome. And we are further encouraged by a recent National Labor Relations Board decision that reaffirms tribal authority with respect to labor relations, and hopeful that pending legislation through the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act will further solidify tribal economic self-determination.
However, the federal government is only one part of the economic development equation for Native Americans. Entrepreneurship has always been essential to our identity, and that remains true in 2015.
Indeed, Native American businesses are leading in many emerging fields, with some tribes considering the possibility of growing marijuana in states that have legalized it for recreational and medicinal use. Though it is early and there are unanswered questions about the legal status of marijuana, it could certainly present an opportunity for some tribes.
Let’s not forget what’s at stake when we talk about economic development for American Indian people. Though some tribal nations have found success through gaming, economic prosperity has not made it to every corner of Indian Country, especially for those tribal communities located in remote locations.
The statistics for our people can indeed be staggering. According to 2014 data, the Native American unemployment rate is nearly double that of the country as a whole, while some reservations experience poverty levels that exceed 50 percent. Over 25 percent of Native Americans live in poverty, and health and educational attainment are persistent concerns in our community.
In trying to address these problems, tribes find themselves still dependent upon the federal government, and often unable to break away from the bureaucratic chains that stifle development. Even when programs are in place to help Native American businesses, it can take years and even centuries for their promise to become even close to being realized.
Moving forward, the federal government can certainly do more to help us establish a new day in Indian Country by living up to its commitment to tribes, and allowing them to exercise sovereignty and self-determination over their economic futures. The result would be not only a more prosperous Indian Country, but a more prosperous America.
On Tuesday, we hope our message was heard by those who make the policies that impact us, so economic self-sufficiency, self-determination, and sustainability become synonymous with American Indian communities. Achieving these goals will help us reach the long overdue “new day” for Indian Country.
Gary Davis is president and CEO of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development. He is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.