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Choose opportunity, not poverty

For the past 20 years or so, my job and calling has been to promote economic development by assisting tribal community members with starting businesses. I have worked for many years at the grass-roots level on my home reservation of Pine Ridge, through the work of the Lakota Fund, the first-of-its-kind Native Community Development Financial Institution. For the past six years through my work at Oweesta, I have had the chance to work with tribes and Native communities all over the nation assisting them with starting CDFIs. These organizations are instrumental in helping community members start businesses or buy homes, and are crucial to boosting Native economies.

Recently I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days with an American Public Media reporter who was doing a story on Native entrepreneurs. There is nothing like spending a couple of days with an inquisitive journalist to help a person view the situation with an outsider’s eye. We spent time at the Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge Reservations in South Dakota where entrepreneurship is off to a good start, thanks primarily to the efforts of two Native CDFIs – Four Bands Community Fund and the Lakota Fund.

Progress has been made, but trying to explain why our communities are still so economically far behind our neighboring off-reservation communities was a challenge. In some ways it goes beyond reason. We blame bad federal policy. We blame poverty. We blame the BIA, and we even blame our tribal council. However, as we are well aware, no amount of blame will fix the problem.

Over the years I have had the opportunity to visit many other tribes and I currently have the great pleasure of sitting on the Board of Governors of the Harvard Project on Indian Economic Development Honoring Nations Program. Through these experiences, I have seen first-hand a number of tribes that have made enormous progress by making important changes in governance and tribal management in spite of poverty, the BIA, governmental structure and all the other issues that continue to afflict my tribe.

Changes such as separating the judicial system from the tribal council and improving the court systems so that they are culturally appropriate but demand accountability can have a tremendous impact on creating a climate in reservation communities that is conducive to economic development. Others include the separation of business development from tribal council, adopting secured transaction codes and increasing government support of institutions like Native CDFIs that help individuals obtain economic self-sufficiency. The list goes on and on as to what tribes can do to improve their economic viability and that of their tribal community members.

The question is – if one tribe can do it, why can’t my tribe? The reporter and I talked about this for several days and, of course, having lived and worked at Pine Ridge I have many opinions about what it will take to change. But my thinking has changed over the last five years or so. This is a bold statement and will probably make a few people mad at me, but here it is: I don’t think we really want to change! Of course, change is hard and it would take a great and deep effort on the part of many people. And, to be fair, there are a number of people that would like to bring about change. I would say that most of the tribal council members want change when they first get elected but, given the complexity of the issues, they are not in the least equipped to do it. Not many people are. They face an uphill battle fighting systems and engrained attitudes that won’t allow change to happen.

I said my thoughts about bringing about change have changed over time, and this is how. We need to find a starting place. I believe that the message is the starting point: a message about self-sufficiency and not dependency on the federal or tribal government, a message about individuals building wealth and assets, a message that says when we operate in ways that are responsible and accountable we will bring success to ourselves as individuals and to the tribe as a whole. How do we do this? By organizing like-minded people in each community and setting goals around these messages, with the ultimate outcome being the creation of private assets for our people.

This is not another short-term fix. We have tried those for a century or so, and in my opinion things have gone from bad to worse. This is about creating lasting change. Even reflecting on my work at the Lakota Fund over the years, I believe that had our goal been to help people achieve and strive for wealth, we would have made different choices along the way. Our strategies may not have changed, but our techniques would have. I believe we would have worked more closely with the schools to promote personal financial management and job and business skills, and we would have implemented the same within the Lakota Fund’s programs.

As I said, we have made progress and there are more Lakota tribal member entrepreneurs on Pine Ridge than I see in many other Native communities, but they continue to struggle because many lack financial management and business management skills. They also operate their businesses in an environment that does not nurture small businesses.

Make no mistake about it – waiting for treaties to be upheld will not move us down the road to self-sufficiency. Treaties should be upheld, but we have to begin this process of self-sufficiency and wealth building ourselves. Sovereign, independent nations cannot be built unless we have economically sovereign people. At the end of the day, it should be the job of our tribal leaders to provide the opportunities and a nurturing environment so that people can come to believe the message of hope. We have “sold” poverty for far too long. Let’s begin selling opportunity.

Elsie Meeks, Lakota, is the executive director of First Nations Oweesta Corporation in Rapid City, S.D. Visit or for more information.