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Study shows tribes boost economy

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HELENA, Mont. ? Montana tribes and reservations pump billions into the state's overall economy even though they suffer average unemployment rates of 65 percent, a long-awaited new study is showing.

The 11-month study was contracted by the State-Tribal Economic Development Commission, an advisory body created by the 1999 Montana Legislature to help find ways to improve reservation economies.

Conducted by RJS & Associates, an Indian owned and operated consulting firm based on Montana's Rocky Boy's Reservation, the report indicates that tribal government, college and housing authority payrolls contribute about $2.2 billion a year, with each of those dollars circulating an estimated five times in local and regional markets. The figure doesn't include tribal government expenditures for goods and services or federal agency payrolls and work-related expenditures.

"It runs into the many billions when you look at it all," Robert J. Swan, the consulting firm's president and head investigator, said in a telephone interview.

The $46,000 report was designed to examine tribal government and private business operations on each of the state's seven reservations, existing infrastructure and infrastructure needs, land base and land use, employment and unemployment rates, banking services and education systems, among other topics. A key goal was to find areas where tribes and the state can work together to make reservation economies stronger.

The commission, now chaired by Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council member Lloyd Irvine, is expected to review the report's findings in late January. Until then, said state Indian Affairs Coordinator G. Bruce Meyers, a member of the panel, official comments on the report would be premature.

A total of 100 responses were collected from community-wide questionnaires, including 31 from American Indian students attending the University of Montana in Missoula. More than 90 percent of individuals surveyed said all of their salaries were spent off reservations in either border towns or larger commercial centers, "stimulating economies other than their own," the study states.

State Rep. Bill Eggers, a Crow Agency Democrat who sponsored the legislation that created the commission and laid the study's groundwork, said he hasn't yet seen the report, but has heard multiple comments on its contents.

"From all accounts, it's a work in progress," he said.

Using 2000 U.S. Census figures, the report shows Montana's Indian population grew by 15.9 percent between 1990 and 2000, compared to a 12.9 percent growth rate for the rest of the state during the same period. The Rocky Boy's Reservation, at 37 percent, experienced the highest rate of population growth during the period, while the Fort Peck Reservation saw a 2.6 percent population decrease. The number of tribal members residing on reserves ranged from 96.3 percent on the Rocky Boy's Reservation to as low as 26.7 percent on the Flathead Reservation.

The study found, however, that the Flathead Reservation, at 37 percent, has the lowest unemployment rate among Montana reservations. Conversely, the Blackfeet Reservation, at 74 percent, ranked highest in the jobless category. The study team pegged the average statewide unemployment rate for all of the state's reservations at 65 percent. One respondent criticized the state for not including federal reporting on reservation unemployment in Montana Department of Labor statistics.

"The bad news is that all seven Indian reservations are enduring an economic catastrophe, the likes of which have only been seen in the most impoverished Third World countries," the RJS team concluded. "The good news is that there exists a large pool of untapped labor on each reservation should possible private-sector business choose to locate there."

Regarding infrastructure, the study only outlines airline and railroad service and major highway systems on or near each of the reservations.

"However, other significant data which are paramount to sustaining long-term economic development and gaining the interest of potential private-sector investment was not reported," the study says. "For example, none of the reservations reported whether they had zoning ordinances, what their telecommunications capabilities were, whether their current water and sewer districts could tolerate additional developments, or whether they have fiber optic technologies."

The report notes that tribal gaming is not big business in Montana, and that two reservations ? Fort Belknap and Blackfeet ? do not yet have gambling compacts with the state. Tribal casino data is especially spotty in the study because only the Chippewa-Cree Tribe fully reported requested gaming details. Multiple questionnaire respondents said tribes and the state should work toward expanding reservation gaming as an economic development tool. They also said bankers need to become better educated about tribal systems ? especially sovereignty issues and land policies ? so the financial needs of tribal members can be better met.

Study respondents in numerous cases also took on their own governments, saying they sometimes impede economic growth through mismanagement, corruption and nepotism.

"The people they put in charge to operate the various programs/projects usually do not have any concept on how to do the project," complained one anonymous respondent. "The folks who come into the program have researched projects that are half-baked. When a person has a good, researched plan, they either don't qualify because of income or some stupid red tape or federal guideline."

"Too many chiefs and not enough Indians," added another commentator.

On the state side, political leaders and agency officials should work with tribes to develop more low-interest loans, provide more business management training, expand tourism promotion and offer more technical assistance. The state should also "stay out of tribal affairs and quit trying to tax gaming oil, etc.," one respondent said. Another commented that tribes should be given wider latitude to levy their own taxes on reservation businesses.

"Be more honest in dealings with Native Americans as a sovereign nation," wrote another study participant. "They should be able to exercise this right when venturing into a business. It seems any time a reservation becomes financially successful, the state government wants a piece of the pie. If they can't muscle their way into some of the capital, they'll sabotage the ventures for the tribe."

"Work with the tribes and non-Indians that reside on the reservation fairly," another person wrote. "Assist instead of hinder."