Indigenous knowledge for economic sustainability

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Contemporary tribal communities need to develop sustaining economies. The world we live in is dominated by competitive national and international markets. Many, if not most, American Indian communities are located on reservations where there are limited resources and often limited market opportunities.

Commanding large quantities of resources is not always a secure path to economic development, but contemporary success in the market requires large investments in education and skilled work forces. Most tribal communities do not have access to investments that will make them competitive with national or international economies.

Most tribal communities do not have access to investments that will make them competitive with national or international economies.

American economic policy for American Indians has largely focused on providing education to American Indians so they can join the American work force. This solution assumes Indian labor will move to where there is work, and the migration from reservations to cities of Indian labor support that view. Research, however, indicates that if there were sufficient jobs on their home reservation, most Indians would prefer to stay in their communities.

If Indian communities are to uphold and extend tribal political and cultural sovereignty, then they will need capabilities to maintain sustained economic autonomy. The reservation system of dependence on federal funds has helped support tribal communities, but does not provide communities and individuals with resources that will ensure the continuity of community, culture and political government.

Current economic development strategies suggest that developing communities can find success in the market economy, and many tribal businesses, academics and leaders have embraced this path. Generally, this plan suggests adoption of American business models of individual or corporate enterprise, and American-like constitutional governments, courts and laws. The American business model will work in the U.S. economy, since it reflects tried business management techniques, and focuses on fostering of local enterprise and individual entrepreneurship.

There are success cases such as Indian gaming, and tribes who have established profitable Native-owned enterprises like the Mississippi Choctaw. For most tribal communities, however, because they are so isolated from markets and large populations, even casinos offer only limited economic opportunity. International development strategies for developing nations often focused on business models, but in recent years have turned attention to development within small communities. This turn of events is a result of the relatively limited economic success generated by top-down business model projects.

For most tribal communities, however, because they are so isolated from markets and large populations, even casinos offer only limited economic opportunity.

Economic developments, in many places in the world, have not made significant advances and the results are often highly mixed, a situation that characterizes present-day American Indian economies. Instead of imposing economic development models that work in highly developed market systems, development strategists look to work cooperatively with local communities and utilize their knowledge of their history, institutions, culture and local economic resources. This approach uses indigenous knowledge, and should be part of the philosophy of economic development in American Indian communities.

Tribally managed businesses, such as many Alaska Native Corporations, many tribal casinos, and other enterprises already exemplify the indigenous knowledge approach when they use profits for improving tribal economic well-being and supporting cultural and sovereignty projects. Development strategies should focus on greater understanding, cooperation, empowerment and investment in tribal communities.

To survive in the present world, indigenous communities can use traditional economic knowledge and apply it in a modern context. A mixed strategy of traditional economy, individual market enterprise and tribal government managed corporations can coexist and provide multiple strategies and tools for moving toward sustained economic self-sufficiency in ways that are informed by indigenous values, culture and interests.

Economic development need not present a devil’s choice between dependent poverty or middle class assimilation. Contemporary tribal economies need to provide enough well-being to sustain healthy, culturally creative, socially interrelated and politically capable communities.