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Help wanted: Superheroes

Tribal leaders hear all about how they should run their governments to achieve economic success: “Separate business from politics.” “Seek out and form partnerships with the federal government and private industry.” “Create more pro-business laws.” “Become more active in federal Indian economic policy-making.” All of this sounds good.

I believe many tribal leaders are taking this advice to heart and trying to implement positive change that would benefit their economies and ultimately, their people. So why are many tribal economies not taking off as everyone hoped they would?

Do you think that with all we expect our tribal leaders to do and be. … are we just setting them up for failure? I mean, we want them to all at once be national leaders, in that they must continually keep abreast of and stay involved in Congressional activities to ensure that the federal government honors its “government-to-government relationship” with Indian tribes. This requires that tribal leaders possess savviness with the Congressional legislative and regulatory decision-making process.

We also expect them to be corporate leaders because they are required to make decisions about tribally-owned businesses, such as whether to invest in a casino expansion or enter into a commercial joint venture in some other industry. We want them to be comfortable reading financial statements and business plans, not to mention negotiating complicated business transactions.

In reality, most tribal leaders must first and foremost be responsive to the demands of their constituents, with whom they have close geographic – and oftentimes familial – connections, and to whom they are personally accessible 24/7. In this sense, tribal leaders are very much like municipal or state local leaders. Indeed, even most state legislators are more removed from and inaccessible to their constituents than tribal leaders. Because state legislatures are only in session for a couple of months each year, the rest of the year legislators are relatively undisturbed by their constituents. Not so with most tribal leaders. If they want to remain in office, tribal leaders must be accessible to the tribal membership around the clock all year long.

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Moreover, the reality on the ground is that tribal leaders are trustees of the tribe’s assets. This means they must make decisions not just with the best interest of their respective district members in mind, but they must do so with the best interest of the entire tribe in mind. These two tribal groups are not always in harmony.

I have observed many tribes when their councils are in session. The typical agenda on any given day is a mix of national, local, corporate and trustee issues all being raised, discussed and decided. To illustrate, the first item of the day might be the tribe’s prioritization of projects to be advocated for in Washington, D.C. In the middle of this discussion, the condition of reservation roads may come up.

This leads to a request for Joe Tribal Member’s approach to be graveled. … which leads to a discussion about whether the tribe should enter into a joint venture with a non-Indian entity to start mining or energy development on the reservation. And if this business venture is to be undertaken, exactly where it will be situated on the reservation sparks great debate – which tribal lands should be developed (or disturbed, depending on who is talking) or which tribal members will get job opportunities (or not) in their back yards. I get mentally exhausted just listening to this chaotic decision-making process, and I can only imagine how the leaders must feel at the end of the day.

Given all these considerations, is it any wonder why tribes sometimes appear to struggle with building sustainable reservation economies? I don’t know if there is a magic formula to help elected tribal leaders succeed at all they are required to do. The best strategy seems to be just making certain that all those who are considering running for tribal leadership positions are fully cognizant of what the job entails, and are prepared – either through education or experience – to confront the monumental tasks facing them once in office. And once in office, tribal leaders could look for non-governmental resources within their own community to assist in their efforts. For example, community development financial institutions can be a valuable resource to tribal governments as a source of funds to develop tribal projects, a place to help educate tribal members (leaders included) about basic financial skills, and a partner in advocating tribal community issues with local, state and federal governments.

Or, with all these job demands, perhaps Indian country just needs superheroes to fill tribal leadership positions.

Tracey Fischer, a licensed attorney and member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, is the president and chief executive officer of First Nations Oweesta Corporation based in Rapid City, S.D. Oweesta assists with the establishment of community development financial institutions and financial education and asset building programs in Native communities throughout the United States. Additionally, Oweesta works with Native communities to strengthen entrepreneurship environments. Tracey obtained her law degree from Yale Law School. She also has a B.S. in business administration and accounting.