Taking tribal sovereignty to the market

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According to Webster's New World Dictionary, sovereignty means "supreme and independent political authority." Over the past two decades, tribes have achieved significant degrees of political self-determination, in particular through federal government programs. But this is not enough. To take tribal sovereignty to the "supreme" level requires moving beyond government and into the market. It means achieving independent economic authority. Toward this end, we see a new tribal leadership emerging, one that is forming partnerships with non-Native groups to further tribal goals.

This leadership was highlighted in a recent Indian Country Today article, titled "Tribes Get Results from the Inside." The Nez Perce have been working with Calvert Social Investment Fund to introduce a shareholder resolution asking Idacorp to establish a written policy for dealing with the rights of the Nez Perce and other tribes. The Hopi and an environmental activist group submitted a shareholder resolution to get Peabody Coal to phase out its use of the Navajo Aquifer. Finally, tribal members and environmental and labor activists have joined to stop Oil-Dri Corp.'s plan to mine clay for kitty litter in Nevada near the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.

What does all this mean for Indian country? Can tribes really use shareholder resolutions to affect business actions in their favor? Well, let's see what the basic statistics tell us. A recent report by the Social Investment Forum stated that socially responsible investing is growing at a strong rate. Despite the market slump, assets in socially screened portfolios under professional management rose by more than a third from 1999 to 2001, topping the $2 trillion mark for the first time ever.

There are now 230 mutual funds in the United States that incorporate social screening into the investment process, up from 168 in 1999. Nearly one out of eight dollars under professional management in the United States is involved in socially responsible investing. More than $900 billion in investment assets are leveraged through shareholder advocacy. Socially screened mutual funds are attracting and keeping investor assets better than their unscreened counterparts in the recent market downturn. Finally, community investing has grown 41 percent between 1999 and 2001.

Tribes using their financial assets and investments to affect business policies are not alone. There is a real commitment by socially conscious investors to make a difference while making money. Some tribes have already joined in this effort by investing and using their status as shareholders to push for policy changes favorable to Indians. Partnerships between tribal leaders and social investors are being created that can both help build assets for future tribal needs and leverage the decisions corporations make in favor of tribal goals and interests, making a difference from the inside.

But there is more. Shareholders are trying to get the clothier Liz Claiborne to change the Crazy Horse label, and to get key pharmaceutical companies to respect the rights of indigenous groups around the world ? given their interest in conducting biodiversity prospecting. Recent developments indicate advances on this front. Combined with activities that strengthen societal respect for American Indians as peoples, we can expect to see an increase in comprehensive strategies that also now include sophisticated economic components.

On Nov. 16, 2001, the Washington, D.C., City Council passed emergency resolutions urging the Washington Redskins football team to change its name. The Oregon Geographic Names Board approved removing the word "squaw" from three areas in the Willamette National Forest. This still leaves about 170 locations tagged with the word. Maine and Minnesota have similar bans in place. Also in 2001, the United States Commission on Civil Rights called for "an end to the use of Native American images and team names by non-Native schools," stating that the mascots may "violate anti-discrimination laws." To date, over 600 public schools have voluntarily changed their names, but there are still 3,500 that continue to use Indian names, symbols, rituals, and mascots for their schools. The American Indian Cultural Support Web site (www.aics.org/mascots) has lists by state.

My knowledge of the socially responsible investment movement has come primarily from being a board member of Calvert Social Investment Fund, but there are many other funds trying to make a difference for indigenous groups. First Nations Development Institute has worked with Calvert to develop the first investment screen to review companies for policies that treat indigenous groups fairly. The screen was based on a compilation of all international treaties that might affect indigenous rights. The Calvert Web site (www.calvert.com/sri.html) provides useful material on socially responsible investing funds and principles. In addition, the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility (www.iccr.org) is in the forefront of shareholder activism, while the Social Investment Forum (www.socialinvest.org) keeps an eye on the socially responsible investing arena and serves as a place for exchange of ideas and experiences among those interested in the field.

I have touched on just a few of the examples where socially responsible investing and good old-fashioned activism are reinforcing one another, providing new and exciting means for tribes to achieve their goals. In particular, the new tool of socially responsible investing is opening an avenue toward sovereignty based on accumulation of assets and independent tribal economic decision-making, keys to the supreme and independent economic authority all tribes require.

This economic authority will be the solid base for real sovereignty in Indian country. To achieve it, tribes need to embrace both old ways and new ways in the push toward the goals we all believe are critical for the benefit of our future generations.