Current discussion emphasizes that economic development is necessary for the realization of any practical or working form of tribal sovereignty. Without an economic base it is unlikely that sufficient economic resources can be generated to support tribal members or to invest in cultural, community and additional economic development.
Tribal sovereignty is about making critical choices about the community's future, and without an independent economic base and resources the ability to make choices is limited. If tribal communities cannot regain economic self-sufficiency, most likely they will remain in political and economic marginalized conditions and have few capabilities to preserve and protect their rights, interests or culture.
American Indians, like all human groups, have adapted to change for thousands of years and will continue to change in ways that suit their cultural and community interests and ensure their futures. In today's world, economic development means successfully making profits through participation in the U.S. or world market system. There is general agreement about the economic challenges that face American Indian or indigenous peoples, but not agreement about how to achieve economic self-sufficiency.
In general, American Indian communities are not good candidates for easily adopting Western-style market enterprise. Many Indian communities favor sharing wealth; prefer economic equality; want to collectively, rather than individually, own major assets like land; and have strong preferences for preserving community and culture, rather than focusing on continual change and innovation within the marketplace.
This does not mean that American Indians cannot be individual entrepreneurs. A U.S. Census survey in 1997 estimated that there are nearly 200,000 American Indian businesses, and the rate is rapidly rising faster than any other major ethnic group in the United States. Many of the businesses are owned and operated by urban relocatees who learned their trade in non-reservation locations and eventually worked toward ownership. In contrast, there are relatively few individual entrepreneurs on the reservations, since most reservation cultures, institutions and governments are not supportive of individual or private entrepreneurship. Most American Indian individually owned businesses are off-reservation because that is where institutional support and market opportunities are available. American Indians are not incapable of market entrepreneurship, but they tend not to practice individual entrepreneurship within reservation communities.
The classic modernization approach to economic development is to reorganize traditional communities to create legal, government and individual motivational supports for market infrastructure. In many ways, for the United States, the Constitution lays out the plan for regulating and supporting a national market system. The Constitution protects private property and regulates trade between the states to help ensure regular and predictable market relations. Tribal reservation communities, however, are not market-based. Modernization theory does not provide a pathway to the market economy that does not eventually require major political, cultural, legal change that often looks like the institutional order of the United States. However, nations like Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan and others have made it clear that there are multiple paths to success within the market system. Non-Western nations can adopt market economy and yet retain critical features of culture, identity and political sovereignty. Admittedly, the path is often difficult.
In Indian country, the general modernization model to market development may work for some communities. Some Indian nations have revised constitutions, created corporations and run successful tribally controlled enterprises, including gaming entities and other businesses. Sovereignty is about making collective community choices about future paths. Each community, based on its history, cultural and political processes, will make its own choice of how to approach a market economy. There will be many solutions, since there are hundreds of American Indian communities and cultures.
For many American Indian communities, the path to market enterprise through significant restructuring of community, political, legal and cultural codes and patterns will be difficult if not undesirable. Recent history, however, suggests that all is not lost in such situations. There is emerging what one may call an American Indian path to market economy which preserves many features of tribal community, collective responsibility and ownership, and supports tribal efforts for strengthening sovereignty. Many tribal governments have formed business enterprises or sometimes outright tribally owned and chartered corporations, so-called ''nation stations,'' that work, not for individual profit-making, but for the economic well-being of the tribal community. In some cases, as in much of southern California, general council governments are formed by all adult members, and hence the community is the government and has ultimate power over economic business.
Nation, corporation and tribal community are not necessarily separate institutions, but are ultimately the same entities under common leadership and community power. In relations with county, state and federal governments the tribal community is a government; for legal and political purposes, a nation. For business transactions, the tribal community is, or is represented by, a tribal business corporation. And for purposes of political process, leadership, cultural community and identity, the tribal community is composed of members, families, clans or other forms of continuing social organization. This approach to market economy, sovereignty and cultural continuity enables American Indian communities to seek necessary participation in market enterprise, but helps ensure that profit-making remain primarily a means to the end of supporting sovereignty, culture and community life.
Participation in the market economy many not entail significant cultural, political and institutional reorganization, as was once thought. Many American Indian communities are participating in U.S. politics and market opportunities in ways that preserve and support continuity of community, culture and political sovereignty. We may be able to have our cake and eat it, too.