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Law conference emphasized Indian country economy

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MOSCOW, Idaho – The University of Idaho College of Law recently held its fifth annual conference to look at issues involving Indian country; this year’s emphasis was on economics. It was sponsored by the James E. Rogers American Indian Fund and organized by professor Angelique EagleWoman.

College of Law dean, Don Burnett, welcomed the large crowd consisting primarily of law school students and attorneys from area tribes. He also spoke of the “rays of hope” to Indian country after the history of “shame on this country for its abuse and mistrust that have arisen out of its affairs with the First Americans. One of the instruments for changing the dialogue and giving real authenticity to the new approach is the economic power of tribal nations.”

Nez Perce Tribal Chairman Samuel Penney also welcomed everyone to “Nez Perce country” and talked of the economic impact of his tribe and the great working relationship with the university. An economic study done by the university showed the tribe is the second largest employer in the area with an equally significant economic impact. Much of that impact comes from its Natural Resources Department including a large fisheries program.

Robert Miller, a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland and a citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, was the first panelist. He spoke about “Tribal Economics from an Indigenous Perspective” and feels that economic development is the most important development in Indian law today.

“Without economic development on reservations, how are Native communities going to continue to survive? If there are not decent jobs. … not decent housing. … decent schools, where they can raise their children, what is going to keep a coherent, cohesive community together in Indian country today? The most important issue is to create economies on the reservations.” This will keep young people on the reservation practicing their culture rather than going to cities where jobs are more readily available.

There is the further need of circulating money within a reservation; that means jobs and profit and the “multiplier effect” of small sums being greatly enhanced if money passes from one business or individual to another. This requires economic development to have those businesses on the reservation rather than having that money immediately leave and spent elsewhere.

Miller also spoke about Indian culture. “Every time you talk about economic development someone is going to raise the issue of culture. Why should economic development hurt culture? Economic development is a perpetuation of thousands of years of Indian culture.”

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He pointed out that Indian people for eons had private property and understood private business and economies and trade. “When Lewis and Clark came through this country they were stunned about the amount of goods for sale and the various techniques tribal people used for selling and packaging these goods. Lewis and Clark themselves bought two tons of dried and pounded salmon.

“We all know there were trade networks that criss-crossed this continent long before Euro-Americans arrived here. We know the Europeans were surprised at the agriculture Indian tribes on the East Coast were engaged in.” He cited numerous examples which tribal people undertook for profit. Such things as singers and shamans paid in whatever currency was used for their services. He cited dentalium shells being used as currency and the wealth accumulated in some tribes by the individual ownership of horses.

Gabe Galanda, enrolled member of Round Valley Indian Tribe and an attorney with Williams Kastner in Seattle, keynoted the day and spoke on “Indian Economic Sovereignty and Sustainability.”

“Without tribal small business and tribal private sector, which does not yet exist in any meaningful way in Indian country, economic sovereignty will never, ever, be realized.”

He encouraged tribes and individuals to “Buy Indian,” again citing the need to recirculate money and rely upon each other within Indian communities. He used Yakama Juice and Sister Sky as two good examples of failure to do this. Yakama Juice produces a variety of high quality products, yet “not one casino, tribal hotel, or restaurant uses it.” Sister Sky is a small company owned by two Spokane sisters who produce lotions, hair products and the like which are high quality and culturally appropriate, but again not used in tribal enterprises. “Shame on us,” Galanda said.

“We have $26 billion in purchasing power (from tribal gaming). … Tribal leadership must teach and mandate to buy Indian.”

Professor Stacy Leeds from University of Kansas School of Law and member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma spoke on the role of tribal courts in tribal economics, and Professor Matthew Fletcher from Michigan State University College of Law discussed, via a video conference link, the Supreme Court and the economics of tribal resistance.