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An Economic Contract With Indian Country

In fact, the best president for Indian country was a Republican – Richard Nixon. Like Nixon, Trump could be a great President for Indian country.

As a tribal citizen, educator, and economic development professional, I am a zealous advocate for tribes and the development of rural tribal economies. Having just returned from the Native American Listening Session specifically requested by Mr. Trump, I was incredibly pleased with the receptiveness of the transition team to the substantive policies that tribal leaders presented. I was equally impressed with Mr. Trump’s selection of Congressman Ryan Zinke to lead Interior, particularly when Rep. Zinke said that “Most important, our sovereign Indian Nations and territories must have the respect and freedom they deserve.” Perhaps, for once, tribes can have a candid conversation with a President and an Interior Secretary about how the United States has failed Indian country and how the federal government can get out of the way, let tribes help themselves and provide services to their citizens, or as Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates put it, give Indian country a “hand up, not a handout.”

I also learned this week that Mr. Trump has a connection to the best president that Indian country has ever seen, Richard Nixon, also a Republican. Indian Law colleagues across the political spectrum generally agree that Nixon launched the self-determination era in Indian country and was the first president to sincerely respect tribal sovereignty. Like Nixon, Trump could be a great President for Indian country. Many of his campaign themes about empowering rural American, rebuilding diverse economies, removing regulatory burdens, and creating jobs are entirely consistent with what Indian country has been telling Washington for years.

I am hopeful that his understanding of tribal sovereignty and his outreach to Indian country during the campaign and now during the transition are indications that Indian country won’t remain part of the vast overlooked segment of America that the bicoastal elitists have ignored for far too long. It is with that hope that I presented some policy proposals at the Listening Session that could be enacted in the first 100 days of the Trump administration – an Economic Contract with Indian country. These items are low-hanging fruit that would empower tribes to secure and build their economies, create jobs, foster entrepreneurship, and contribute to the effort to make America great again.

To help refine this contract, and perhaps even before he takes office, Mr. Trump should first convene a White House Tribal Leaders Economic Recovery Summit to get input on matters of critical importance to Indian country such as:

Strengthening Tribal Sovereignty

  1. Promise to immediately sign the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act once Congress passes it and strongly encourage Congress to pass that legislation within its first 100 days.
  2. Work with tribal leaders to transfer control of leasable resources to the tribes, and repeal any job-killing restrictions that impede the development of tribal energy resources, particularly tribal coal resources.
  3. Sign an executive order recognizing that tribal governments are sovereign governments and that they should receive at least the same treatment as state governments for all federal purposes, including independent agency enforcement actions. It should not be that independent federal agencies insert their judgment to the exclusion of tribal governments.


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Restoring Tribal Land and Natural Resources

  1. Transfer all surplus federal land within tribal ancestral territories, including federal forest land, to the respective tribes and remove any job-killing restrictions on those tribes’ use of that land, including timber harvesting and natural resource extraction.
  2. Develop a plan for tribal governments to maintain full and exclusive jurisdiction over tribal lands and to effectively assert such jurisdiction over reacquired lands within their ancestral territories, as the current patchwork of jurisdictions is one of the biggest impediments to economic growth in Indian country. Such jurisdiction would also exclude state taxation for on-reservation activities, solving the problem of double-taxation that is devastating to many tribal economies. (Forthcoming revisions to the Indian Trader regulations may provide a mechanism to eliminate such double-taxation).

Promoting Economic Development and Entrepreneurship in Indian Country

  1. Direct the Treasury Department and the Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) Fund to carve out an allocation of New Market Tax Credits for Native CDFI’s in the same fashion as technical assistance and financial assistance carve-outs were developed for Native CDFI’s.
  2. Substantially increase the funding available for the Indian Loan Guaranty, Insurance, and Interest Subsidy Program in the first proposed President Trump administration budget and eliminate all restrictions that impede on-reservation small business development.
  3. Work with the Congress to amend §7871 of the Tax Code to repeal the prohibition on tribal private activity bonds and, since tribal governments are currently the only governments that have to prove that their tax-exempt bonds are governmental, repeal the “essential governmental function” test in §7871. These changes will promote infrastructure and economic development on tribal lands.
  4. Sign an executive order affirming that, since Section 17 Corporations are corporations for all federal purposes, investments in Section 17 corporations should receive the same capital gains treatment as investments in C Corporations. Such a change will facilitate significant outside investment in Indian Country enterprises.
  5. Work with the Congress to add Indian tribes as potential shareholders of Subchapter S corporations in the Tax Code. Such a change will allow tribes to attract and foster small businesses on the reservation.

One of my Harvard Business School professors famously defined Entrepreneurship as the relentless pursuit of opportunity beyond resources currently controlled, and I have seen firsthand how many tribal leaders relentlessly pursue economic opportunity on behalf of their citizens. Far too often, however, federal regulators and bureaucrats stand in the way. Making all of America great again requires developing a thriving entrepreneurial sector in Indian country, and Washington has been an impediment to tribal enterprise development for more than a century. However, one merely needs to look at what tribes have been able to accomplish, despite having so little, to feel hope that Indian country can succeed as our domestic emerging economy if only given a chance. Indian tribes are the most rural of rural America, yet because of their unique legal status, they have the potential to be the strongest partners for all rural economic development.

As Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II told the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Trump will soon have “the authority and power to really make a difference.” With the successful implementation of an Economic Contract with Indian country, President Trump could arguably become the best president ever for Indian country.

Dr. Gavin Clarkson, Esq. (Choctaw) is an associate professor in the Finance Department of the College of Business at New Mexico State University. An enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Dr. Clarkson was named the nation’s “leading scholar in tribal finance” by The Financial Times and has repeatedly been cited by the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and USA Today. Dr. Clarkson holds both a bachelor’s degree and an MBA from Rice University, a doctorate from the Harvard Business School in Technology and Operations Management, and is a cum laude graduate of the Harvard Law School, where he was the managing editor of the Harvard Journal of Law and Technology and president of the Native American Law Students Association.