Ramping Up Economic Development Policy for Tribes

Economic development policies for Native American tribes need improving.

Maybe you’ve heard: The Department of the Interior’s (DOI) Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs has a deputy for policy and economic development. In recent years, that office has played an increasingly significant part in tribal government planning and goals.

A good thing, too. Because if reservation communities can’t continue to enter into the marketplace and create wealth and income for tribal members, they will remain impoverished and at the mercy of the federal government.

Just consider the numbers. According to the Census Bureau, the poverty rate for reservation Indians in 2010 was 28.4 percent, while the poverty rate for all Americans was 15.3 percent. Poverty rates on some reservations, like the San Carlos and Pine Ridge, can be more than 50 percent.

By now, we all know the miseries that come with being poor: substandard education, ill health, chronic unemployment, bad housing and pitiful economic opportunities among them. Not to mention the pathetically limited resources for political and cultural practice and renewal. It’s a grim fact that Indian poverty, both reservation and urban, remains a central feature of contemporary Indian life.

Fortunately, Washington knows this. And so it is encouraging to see the federal bureaucracy devoting at least some management resources to policy and economic development issues. As it is, these activities are mandated by congressional legislation.

But plenty of challenges remain. Take the Office of Tribal Self-Governance, which is devoted to contract negotiations and monitoring of federal contracts. It carries out necessary and important tasks for tribal governments. But it is not engaged in helping tribal governments and communities prepare for market competition. Nor does it handle culturally acceptable ways to approach market enterprise.

Witness, too, the Office of Indian Gaming, which assists tribes in negotiating compacts with state governments. All well and good. But as Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar recently noted, less than half of federally recognized Indian reservations have gaming establishments, and only about 232 are engaged in casino-style gaming. “Most tribal gaming operations are quite small,” he said, “and are located in rural areas.”

And then there is gaming revenue itself. It has helped many tribes provide needed services such as housing, safety, health and education. Gaming funds have been a significant building block for some tribal governments and communities to obtain greater self-governance. Nonetheless, Indian gaming successes are limited. For most Indian communities, gaming just can’t provide enough support for economically sustainable empowerment.

Granted, the assistant secretary’s policy and economic development office has begun to more directly address some important issues. These include economic financing, training in entrepreneurship and management, marketing of energy and minerals, economic capacity building and workforce training. The office recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development for future collaboration on economic development for Indian tribes. A major consultation initiative to hear the voice of tribal leaders about proposed revision of leasing rules affecting residents, business leasing, and wind and solar power leasing issues will be completed by this summer.

And including Indian cultural values and community goals within economic development planning is becoming an important priority. Members of the Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota collected $117 million in oil royalties in 2011, thanks in part to cooperative relations between the DOI and the tribal government to support environmentally safe oil extraction. The division of energy and mineral development is actively promoting environmentally friendly, or green, job creation for reservation communities. Since 2009, the division of capital investment has guaranteed more than $209 million in loans to Indian individual and tribal businesses that are designed to benefit reservation economies.

Before you get too hopeful, though, remember this: The total budget for Indian policy and economic development is only about $40 million, of which about $25 million goes to salaries. That’s a pittance. When it comes to investment and culturally agreeable economic development on Indian reservations, the DOI isn’t doing nearly enough.