Those tribes that are interested in pursuing culturally compatible business and economic development do have viable alternatives to using models from the surrounding settler society. My legal-economic research indicates, however, that the most prominently pushed methods for achieving this are deeply flawed. This flawed approach is particularly acute within the Harvard American Indian Economic Development Project [Harvard Project]. While the Harvard Project does have its place within Indian country, it is very limited. That place is properly as only a starting point for tribes that have already emulated settler society economic structures but want to transform themselves toward a more culturally compatible as well as viable economy.
My research indicates that the Harvard Project and its progeny have persistently misconstrued the work of Harvard-trained ecological economist Ronald Trosper, Salish-Kootenai, and taken unknowing U.S. tribes on a journey towards deeper assimilation and ultimate self-destruction using a one-sided and distorted view of contemporary economics. Ecological and complexity economics - both of which have long been the focus of Trosper's work but which are not present in the Harvard Project - are the proper vehicles through which tribes and tribal individuals should be designing their economies and pursuing their entrepreneurship. In addition, the empirical findings of the Harvard Project are coming under increasing criticism. Tribes need to be more familiar with all of this.
Tribes and tribal individuals should re-evaluate the fundamental premises of the Harvard Project in light of the findings in ecological and complexity economics and construct aggressive plans to transition from where they are now to culturally compatible business and economic development. This will also require some re-training of their tribal attorneys as well as more discrimination in the use of financial and economic advisers. Tribal laws should concurrently be re-examined. Fortunately, many resources are available for these kinds of action to be taken in a constructive manner.
Federal Indian laws that are related to economics and business must also be re-examined in light of these findings. The legal-economic philosophies of federal judges, particularly in the 8th, 9th and 10th circuits, must be examined as well. Finally, the importance of private law, and the opportunities it presents for making this transition, must not be overlooked. Identification and development of like-minded academic contacts are needed as well, preferably at all levels of education within indigenous society.
International law also presents currently unexamined opportunities for tribes and tribal individuals who want to take this approach. Deepening contacts among like-minded tribes within the U.S. are essential for success as is greater familiarity with the legal-economic underpinnings of emerging nation-states such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, urban and rural Indian youth should be presented with opportunities to study ecological economics at the elementary, secondary and post-secondary school levels.
- Valerie J. Phillips
Assistant professor of lawUniversity of Tulsa College of LawTulsa, Okla.