Palermo: Rebuilding tradition of trade has not been a smooth ride

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It was common, centuries ago, for the Hupa people of what is now Northern California to trade with the neighboring Yurok for the wood needed to fashion canoes. The Kumeyaay of San Diego County exchanged shells and fish with tribes further north for obsidian to make arrows, spear points and cutting tools.

Southern California tribes engaging in commerce with other Southwest tribes forged friendships and alliances and shared songs and cultural teachings in that time centuries ago.

It is estimated that 10 to 14 percent of the nation’s traditional and renewable energy – coal, gas, oil, wind, solar, biomass, geothermal and other resources – are on tribal lands, potentially igniting a surge of economic growth that could dwarf government gaming.

With the unprecedented economic growth now taking place in Native America, it is not unreasonable to suggest indigenous peoples of California and throughout North America may one day engage in trade and commerce much like they did before European contact.

That hope was renewed when hundreds of American Indian and non-Indian businesspersons and entrepreneurs gathered at the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa in Rancho Mirage, Calif., July 12 – 14 for the American Indian Chamber of Commerce Expo ’09. The title of the conference: “Reaching New Heights Through the Spirit of Change.”

With the growth of tribal government gaming annually generating $27 billion and rapidly expanding into a resort and tourism industry employing some 300,000 people, the opportunity for tribal business partnerships and individual Native American entrepreneurialism would seem unlimited.

Rapid reinvestment of gaming revenues into other tribal government business enterprises – office and industrial real estate, high-tech businesses and other ventures – is creating a large, strong and diverse American Indian economy.

Non-gaming government enterprises operated by the 360 tribes in the lower 48 states probably generates “less than a fourth” the revenue produced by government casinos, said Lee Acevedo, executive director of the California Nation Indian Gaming Association. But that lopsided ratio will eventually even out.

Meanwhile, it is estimated that 10 to 14 percent of the nation’s traditional and renewable energy – coal, gas, oil, wind, solar, biomass, geothermal and other resources – are on tribal lands, potentially igniting a surge of economic growth that could dwarf government gaming.

Tribal ownership of those energy resources would greatly enhance Indian sovereignty and strengthen tribal self-governance, contributing to a sustainable future for Indian children, grandchildren and generations to come.

The opportunity for a true Native American renaissance – one built on strong governance, economic growth and cultural and language preservation – seems truly at hand.

But change seldom comes quickly, or smoothly, if at all.

David Lester, executive director of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes of Denver, Colo., and a citizen of the Muscogee Cree Nation, is hopeful there will be a new paradigm for energy development on tribal lands. Tribes seek to own and manage energy development, he said, and are no longer willing to simply enter into royalty agreements with private companies for their precious natural resources.

“Tribal leaders have a different vision of the future,” he said. “They view energy as a means of achieving more and stronger self-governance and a pathway to greater tribal prosperity. Energy is the means to achieve the goal, not the goal itself.”

But many tribal initiatives under former President Bush’s 2005 Energy Policy Act, including proposals enabling tribes with adequate governmental structures to have greater authority over energy production on tribal lands, remain unfunded.

Meanwhile, officials with the Intertribal Agricultural Council have voiced frustration over attempts to market products overseas and to tribal government enterprises.

Model partnerships such as Four Fires and Three Fires – tribal consortiums in the development of Marriott Residence Inn hotels in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento, Calif. – have had few imitators.

And Tracy Stanhoff, president of the California American Indian Chamber and former chairwoman of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, is miffed at the failure of many tribes to hire Native American vendor companies.

Tribes and American Indian entrepreneurs should be sharing in the new economic growth in Native America, she said, but too many tribes are only paying lip service to the new mantra, “Buy Indian.”

The frustrations felt by American Indian businesses seeking opportunities in Indian country are obviously exacerbated by the recession.

“It’s picking up a little more, it’s improving,” Acevedo said of efforts by tribes to seek out American Indian vendors. But tribal governments after generations of neglect remain cautious, if not distrustful, as they seek out vendors to new tribal business enterprises. “They are doing their due diligence,” he said.

The frustrations felt by American Indian businesses seeking opportunities in Indian country are obviously exacerbated by the recession.

There will be challenges on Capitol Hill in coming years as Congress begins trimming a burgeoning deficit, ending the flood of stimulus dollars to state and tribal governments.

“The recession will end. It’s not a permanent condition. Most people are saying that it will end within the next year,” said Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian and keynote speaker at Expo ’09. “(But) unlike previous recoveries, this one will not be a particularly robust recover. It will take some time.

“I think we can assume federal spending has peaked. Elected officials are going to find political pressure to take serious steps to decrease the deficit,” Gover said, if not in 2010, certainly in 2011.

Obama administration appointments, which include the first Native American solicitor for the Department of the Interior and two American Indian domestic policy advisors in the White House, indicated the voice of Native America “will be heard,” Gover said.

“Our tradition is a thinking tradition. We need our business community through your research, your innovation, your determination and your thoughtfulness to continue building the economic strength of Native America.”

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