PHOENIX ? With the goal of creating 100,000 jobs in Indian country by 2008, more than 1,500 tribal leaders, business people and government officials gathered at the National Summit on Emerging Tribal Economies last week to explore ways to build sustainable economies within Indian nations.
In his opening remarks, Assistant Interior Secretary Neil McCaleb said the federal government and tribes must find new approaches to fuel economic development on reservations to stem the staggering unemployment rates pervasive in Indian country.
"It is unconscionable to have islands of poverty in a nation enjoying great prosperity," he said, noting that more than half of reservation residents are unemployed and one-third of those with jobs live below the poverty level.
To meet the Bush Administration's goal for building sustainable market-driven economies on reservations by 2020, President Bush has created a steering committee of all department heads and named McCaleb to chair efforts to help create economic opportunities in Indian country.
In an interview with Indian Country Today, McCaleb said the summit marks the beginning of efforts to publicize funding and opportunities that already exist in federal agencies like the Departments of Agriculture, Interior and Defense.
Currently, more than half the money ? some $4 billion ? that is available to Indian entrepreneurs and tribal governments goes untapped and is eventually returned to the Treasury, according to a Government Accounting Office report issued last year.
That happens, McCaleb surmised, because many federal agencies don't know how to conduct outreach to Indian country to notify tribes about available funding, and most Indian people lack familiarity with how to apply for these funds.
The summit was one way to provide hundreds of Indian business people an opportunity to network, establish contacts and learn about prospects for capturing business opportunities that fit today's market, he said.
"This is different from the old approach where the government would offer one program that fits all. One year we'd have economic development money for destination tourism resorts and the next year it would be industrial parks. So tribes would go out and build those things without consideration for whether or not there was market for them and as a result, many of them failed."
Now it's up to tribes and Indian businesses to best define what drives their local economies, he said, and the government's role is to assist them in responding to those opportunities.
"We're doing that now with the information technology business because it's clear there are opportunities for tribes there," he said. "The government is a major buyer of these services and some tribes have been able to secure substantial contracts."
McCaleb offered two recent examples of contracts for information technology work that landed DOI contracts worth more than $100 million each for the Wyandott Tribe of Oklahoma and Mandaree Enterprises, a business owned by the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota.
Likewise, the Department of Defense is "hungry to do business with Indian country" he said, noting that the government currently can't find enough talent to do document imaging that converts old analog computer documents into digital formats.
"For individuals and tribes that have information technology capability and expertise, there are great opportunities. Look at Karlene Hunter who owns Lakota Express ? she handled the web site and registration for this conference from her small business based on the Pine Ridge reservation."
Distance is no longer a factor that holds people back from being close to consumer markets because in the knowledge-based economy of today, products travel at the speed of light over the information highway. That allows tribal businesses in North Dakota to compete in the same market as businesses in Washington, D.C., he explained.
"The real strength of our economy is not the giants like Enron and AT&T," McCaleb said. "It's the small business people who employ four or five people. Indian entrepreneurs can make an impact by looking at the need for services within their communities and responding to that need, be it convenience stores, gas stations or Internet businesses. We can now reach people in Germany who are famished for anything Indian."
Acknowledging that capital and financing are sorely inadequate on most reservations, McCaleb said he hopes to initiative a few changes that can help Indian businesses, including some new ideas on how trust land can be leveraged for financing.
Instead of waiting for the BIA's title plant to research and verify information, a process that can take years, McCaleb said he would look into the idea of using title insurance to secure private loans on long-term leases on Indian land.
Responding to criticism voiced by several Indian businessmen that the BIA does not honor the Buy Indian Act in solicitations let from Interior, McCaleb promised to push harder to ensure that current surplus money is contracted out to Indian owned firms.
"I signed off on the new regulations two weeks ago for the Buy Indian Act and comments are being published now," he said. "I am committed to seeing that we do more tribal contracts, including sole-source contracts to Indian firms, so that to the greatest extend possible we make sure money is going to reservation-based businesses."
Another way Interior plans to assist tribes is to secure more set-asides from the Federal Highway Trust Fund for roads in Indian country. Reauthorization for the fund occurs in 2003 and McCaleb said building necessary road infrastructure was a key component of Indian economic development.
McCaleb hopes networking with private enterprises and government agencies will help build small businesses on reservations, and he promised BIA would provide technical assistance and some cash resources in the process.
"But if people are expecting the government to come in with a big wad of cash and create 100,000 jobs in the next five years, they are going to be disappointed. Those jobs will be created five or six at a time as Indian entrepreneurs awaken to the opportunities," he said.
"If you believe in self-determination, you have to believe in tribes taking the lead in these initiatives. Government needs to help, but tribes will lead the way."