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American Indian Development, a Time to Maximize Trade and Commerce

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Almost all the Native peoples of the Southern Hemisphere and a substantial piece of the Indian country in North America are mired in poverty. This is particularly the case in Central and South America, but it is just as true in the United States, where every socio-economic indicator verifies the continuing misery on most reservations. Both internationally and nationally, there is a lot that can be done about it.

At the United Nations this week in New York City, over a thousand indigenous delegates will gather to assess the problems and potentials of their nations, tribes and communities. The much-touted UN International Decade of Indigenous People has come and gone. It can be argued that the Decade and the whole effort at the UN for over two decades have brought serious attention for indigenous peoples and their cases. No doubt, the human and civil rights of individuals and occasionally of a whole sector of humanity have been better addressed because of the international networks developed at the UN. Certain covenants and declarations generated by the process can already, in modest ways, prove useful in Native rights cases, and most hopefully in the protection of indigenous territories from outright dispossession.

It can just as effectively be argued that the misery and poverty resulting from conquest, colonization and marginalization have only worsened during this same time. On the ground, this is the harsh reality for most Latin American Indian communities. Survival movements of the 1970s have turned into autochthonous movements that in countries such as Ecuador and Bolivia have gained great political momentum in recent years. What no one has even remotely identified for improvement is the economic conditions experienced by indigenous peoples - which has been a disappointment during those very same years.

At the international level, with few excellent exceptions, the problem is that funding agencies are seldom geared to work with grass-roots indigenous communities. A great deal of education and networking, in both directions, is severely needed. There have been too many mutual misconceptions. Development funds, which have steadily diminished in the past decade, tend to filter through layers of international and national agencies and intermediary NGOs. These tend to feed myriad professionally paid consultants whom too often consume resources that should have reached the community levels. Additionally, cultural cycles and kinship relations often lack logic to professional agencies, who don’t easily square with the pace and interconnectedness of community processes, too often condemning to failure programs that could work well over longer extended periods. Then, too, since the international attention on terror, many donors are scared away by the possibility that some international agency and foundation of choice might turn out to have some link to a suspected terror organization. As a result, international philanthropic agencies and foundations must rededicate themselves given the increased complexities of the task at hand.

On the other side of the equation, generations of abuse and oppression clearly have caused among many Native peoples what psychologists these days identify as historical pain or "ethno-stress," serious decision-making dysfunctions that are not easily overcome with short-term gifts or facile commitments. For fruitful community development, a commitment of generations is required. Methodologies are crucial that expertly gather the best possible community, tribal and nation leadership to guide development in culturally appropriate and non-conflictive ways.

In this context, we heartily endorse the efforts of the International Funders of Indigenous Peoples (IFIP), a highly energetic and well-envisioned new project that aims to educate international funders and directly connect them with varieties of emerging proposals (locally and regionally-based) for indigenous community development. IFIP coordinator Evelyn Arce White has developed a superbly useful guide to funding possibilities for indigenous community projects ("Indigenous Peoples Funding and Resource Guide," Second Edition, IFIP, 2004 - ifip@...). It focuses at once on informing indigenous peoples’ organizations on the best approaches for securing financial backing and on educating the foundation world on how to best support the responsive energies for community building among Native peoples.

Quite apart from most other indigenous peoples, in North America a good portion of Indian country is experiencing a tremendous explosion of financial power. It is not widely beneficial as yet but it has huge potential for manifesting the dreams of generations of Native visionaries for reestablishing cultural and commerce relations among Indian peoples throughout the Americas and among Native peoples worldwide. Close to two decades have passed since American Indian tribes launched the gaming era. In the past decade some 200 tribes have achieved various degrees of success, with several deriving very substantial economic rewards and about a score emerging as significant financial players rivaling that of most major wealthy American businesses and families. Native tribal gaming enterprises earned some $5 billion dollars and spent nearly $15 billion last year.

Thus the question now surfaces with increasing frequency: if a fifth of Indian country these days enjoys a growing capital base of such substantial proportions what could be done, if wiser heads gathered and advocated for it, to defeat the widespread misery and poverty still besetting the families on the majority of reservations?

It is incongruous to see such huge economic disparity in Indian country. We believe and very much hope that it will soon be seen as shameful by all Indian people. Message: the time is now for the richer tribes to connect more intently and thus to do more for the rest of Indian country.

We are not suggesting giveaways. All tribes have many needs, even as they gather economic territory. The job of reconstruction and nation building is profound. While we respect those whose job it is to distribute charity, we do not focus on charity ourselves as the main avenue for positive change. Our goal is the economic prosperity of all Native peoples. And prosperity needs another engine other than charity. It needs production, both for family and community consumption - the insurance of the local indigenous economies - and in the organization and manufacture of goods and services that can be profitably sold or traded in the world.

The North American tribal nations need to seriously engender a major national initiative to buy and when necessary develop Indian production and services in every way possible. Stimulus of Indian family and community tribal enterprise is highly desired and must be highly valued. A serious and aggressive inter-Indian trade and commerce program is required.

Our desire is to stimulate a serious, pragmatic discussion concerning the needs and opportunities for maximizing trade and commerce among American Indians and, indeed, all indigenous peoples. We recognize, as occasionally covered in our news and other sections, that some of the economically successful tribes are paying attention to the needs of other tribes. There is a noticeable trickle of such examples. These actions are highly commendable. But as the misery of our populations is cruelly destructive, a watershed movement is needed. A serious spigot needs to turn on, even if the parceling of the irrigation is done drip by drip, when required to get the maximum effect, or by the bucketful as potentials grow. The major casino resorts need huge quantities of meats and other agricultural products, many goods and services, again, over $14 billion dollars worth. We submit that every opportunity not spent doing business with other, appropriate but less financed American Indian businesses, is a dollar lost to the unified strength and growth of tribal prosperity and freedom.

We urge tribal leaders and their enterprise directors in North America to value the call to: buy Indian; support Indian; develop Indian. American Indian leaders must supply the political volition to make this happen within their complex and layered tribal enterprises. This itself might be their most daunting challenge. Business logic is rightfully demanding but tribal policy must also be set to support and strengthen American Indian business alliances - the primary sector among our peoples uniquely suited to expand Indian opportunity and to provide the political clout required to protect indigenous life and enterprise well into the future.

We believe increased business relations among tribal communities and enterprises will strengthen tribal unity. It is a necessary goal for which we will always advocate. It is time to cast off the dysfunctions that inhibit healthy community and intertribal relations. We call for the intense critique of tribal shortcomings that misapprehend this most important of survival lessons. A strong alliance of tribal peoples - North and South, East and West - is the stuff of life for all our nations; and it is good for America.