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Palermo: Keeping focused, in good times, and bad

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Two years ago, the elected chairman of a small, prosperous American Indian tribe telephoned Professor Joe Kalt of Harvard University. The chairman predicted he and others on the tribal council would be ousted in an upcoming election.

Kalt was confused. The tribe was not only prosperous, but had set an example throughout Native America for strengthening its government and building a diversified economy. The tribe was a model of Native sovereignty and self-determination.

“What happened?” Kalt asked.

“We forgot how to govern,” the chairman replied. Efforts aimed at strengthening the tribe’s government and creating a diversified, sustainable economy for future generations, he said, had fallen victim to internal politics, greed and casino per capita payments.

Elected tribal leaders who had been advocating long-term goals were being ousted by those who favored increased per capita payments to tribal citizens.

Kalt, co-director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, did not identify the ousted tribal leader in his keynote address May 12 at the 10th Native American Finance Conference at the Venetian/Palazzo Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nev.

But Kalt used the story to illustrate the need for tribal leaders to maintain their focus on strengthening tribal governance and building sustainable communities, in good economic times and during the current recession.

“These are the best of times and the worst of times,” Kalt said, paraphrasing author Charles Dickens’ opening lines in “A Tale of Two Cities.” After generations of poverty and federal government neglect, tribal leaders are faced for the first time with potential layoffs, construction delays and cutbacks in programs and services to their constituents.

Many of those services and programs were initiated since the 1970s, when the federal government began a policy of tribal self-determination, allowing Native nations to exercise their inherent right to sovereignty and self-governance.

“The challenges of building a community where people can and want to live don’t go away when the cash is flowing,” Kalt said. “And they certainly don’t go away when the cash stops flowing.

“It’s important, at this time, to invest in those kinds of activities, programs, projects of infrastructure that have lasting affects for the community,” Kalt told more than 300 attendees at the conference, sponsored by the Information Management Network. “The danger seems to be forgetting what the goals are.”

While tribes with government gaming have predictably grown their economies in the past two decades, the per capita income of citizens of Native nations without casinos have also expanded at a rate three times that of the U.S. economy, according to Harvard studies.

“People forget the means by which progress has been made in Indian country,” Kalt said.

Sovereignty, self-governance, laws and impartial, non-political court systems are crucial in building the foundation for a sustainable community, Kalt said, one that encourages capital investment.

More important, he said, they are crucial ingredients in encouraging young, Native citizens to remain on or return to their homelands, pursuing careers, raising families and strengthening tribal cultures.

The Right to Fail

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“Sovereignty is the first policy that ever worked in building and strengthening Native communities,” Kalt said.

Unfortunately, sovereignty and self-governance “also means the right to fail.”

Sovereignty is a two-edged sword. Kalt quoted the tribal leader, who in referring to the generations before self-determination, said, “It used to be when things went wrong we could blame the feds. Now when things go wrong (tribal citizens) blame me.”

Kalt warned those at the conference that tribal self-determination twists in the political whims of an uninformed Congress and state legislatures and decisions by an often-misguided federal, state and U.S. Supreme Court judges.

“Tribal sovereignty hinges on the thread of a poorly educated population.”

Tribes are not accurately perceived as First Americans working to rebuild their communities and preserve their way of life. They are not regarded as governments with the same responsibility to their constituents as states, counties and municipalities.

“That’s the reality the public doesn’t know,” Kalt said. “Indian country needs to find a mechanism to get its message out there.”

The Martin Plan

Former Chief Phillip Martin of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, credited with rebuilding the tribe’s government and creating a diversified economy long before tribal gaming, once lectured at a Harvard class taught by Kalt.

When Martin returned to the Choctaw reservation in 1956 from a stint in the U.S. Air Force, he encountered a community of some 2,000 impoverished sharecroppers and tenant farmers.

After 50 years of his leadership, the Choctaw is a nation of 9,000 citizens with a multimillion-dollar gaming, tourism and industrial economy. The tribe has a strong government and an impartial court system. Choctaw citizens have access to quality health care. They live in comfortable homes. The roads are smooth and the water is clean. Young people attend well-equipped, highly regarded schools. Most of the children speak fluent Choctaw.

The tribal leader patiently told the Harvard law students the story of the Choctaw renaissance. Following his lecture a student asked Martin, “what’s all his economic development doing to Choctaw culture?”

Martin was taken aback by the question, fraught as it was with ignorance and prejudicial American Indian stereotypes.

Martin paused.

“Well, I don’t know,” he finally replied. “Everybody used to go away. Now they’re coming home.”

Dave Palermo is an award-winning former newspaper reporter and editor. He currently is a freelance writer and media consultant. He can be reached at