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Becoming ‘better off’ in a bad economy

In the important 2007 reader, “Shoot the Indian: Media, Misperceptions and Native Truth,” a speech given by venerable Haudenosaunee scholar John C. Mohawk caps a remarkable collection of discussions on the intersection of Native America, government and media. In what is understood to be his last speech, Mohawk talks about a looming economic downturn in prescient terms. He asked an important question, one that many find themselves asking as this new year begins: “What is our best option for survival?”

“What I’m saying,” said Mohawk, “is that in times of crisis, in times of economic distress, our lands, our skills, our heritage and our cultures have served to help us survive. It’s just a reality.”

Then, Mohawk challenged the commonly held notion of subsistence as it relates to Indian peoples. Farming, or “living off the land,” is part of the answer, but cannot be the only option during times of great financial hardship.

“Subsistence doesn’t mean you aim for a level of economic existence that’s the bare minimum,” he said. “Subsistence means that the bare minimum is the worst it ever gets. When you’re going this way, you’ve got the cushion. You stop there. Without subsistence, you keep going until you hit rock bottom, and rock bottom is not good.”

In all situations, opportunities arise. It must not be said that recessions (or depressions) do not affect Indians or Indian country. Just as Native America is comprised of hundreds of distinct cultures, the financial circumstances of Indian nations are unique. However, it is critical that programs and initiatives that work are communicated; tribes with best practice models are encouraged to speak up and out in tough times such as these. With Indian governments and enterprises reducing workforces and tightening budgets against a hardening national economy, it is important to remember that unity is strength, and strength is survival.

“Subsistence means that the bare minimum is the worst it ever gets.”
– John C. Mohawk

Some opportunities have come from national programs and organizations. Native American Finance Officers Association in September dedicated much of its annual meeting to conducting business during a recession. First Nations Oweesta Corporation and First Nations Development Institute are partnering to offer training and technical assistance through the Native Individual Development Account initiative. American Indian Chambers of Commerce work to enhance employment readiness and opportunities to Native communities. And on the home financing front, HUD’s Indian Home Loan Guarantee program is helping Native families and organizations survive 2008’s market chaos.

It has been two years since Mohawk passed on one December morning, but his prophetic words still bear great significance today. He warned of a sharp decline in the American economy, despite a seemingly stable outlook at the time. “Sometimes,” Mohawk pointed out, “economic hard times have been opportunity moments for people and in Native communities. So if the hard times come, I don’t want to see our people lie down in defeat just because of that. This could be an opportunity for people, and I kind of expect it will be.

“If five years from now we gather together, or you see me somewhere and you say, ‘Hey, what happened to that depression?’ I will be completely at your mercy. But if we are having it, you’ll know that you would have been better off taking that kind of advice home. You’d be better off anyway if we never had a depression. …”

Something to ponder this new year is not whether Indian nations will be better off, but whether they will plan to be better off.

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