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The architecture of a sustainable American Indian economy

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Everyone knows what the important economic question is. And that question
applies to all tribes, because we - all our tribes - have experienced more
or less the same history.

After so many centuries of our lands and resources, our cultural norms and
our original social orders and governance systems being assaulted,
violated, disrespected, stereotyped, ridiculed, appropriated,
misappropriated, substituted, adulterated, misrepresented, persecuted,
suppressed, dominated, smothered and, in some cases, snuffed out by the
dominant culture, how can Native societies reconstitute themselves to the
point of forever leaving behind a dependent survival pattern?

The answer may be found in another question: How can the North American
tribal community develop a long-term, robust, sustainable and inclusive
economy capable of achieving necessary self-government revenues, acceptable
employment statistics and desirable growth rates across all (or most all)
tribes, towards a collectively secure self-governance tradition and a
mutually supportive economic future?

This is perhaps the primary defining question that confronts our tribal
leaders in rebuilding our collective community of First Nations of the
Americas. We are perhaps now, finally, close to seriously addressing this
challenge.

After more than five centuries following initial contact with the first
immigrant settlers in this hemisphere, we are perhaps poised to truly
re-develop an "international" community of First Nations based on a
positive, harmonized, collective momentum of economic initiative, rather
than a merely reactive pattern of responses to successive generations of
negative external pressures.

HISTORICAL INTER-TRIBAL COMMERCE

It is a truism that the North American tribal community constitutes a group
of societies whose collective identity is defined by so much more than
being simply one member of the contemporary North American community of
"visible minorities."

Rather, our true collective identity is as much fed by the mythic and
historical value of our shared spiritual relationship with the lands of our
respective ancestors as by the way we all - every last tribe, from all four
directions - weaved the mystical properties of our natural environments
into the belief systems and collective rituals that held our communities
together, as self-governing and sovereign societies since time immemorial.

And yet we may be well-advised to learn some commercial and financial
practices from other minorities (visible and otherwise) that were not
original inhabitants of the Americas, but who have come here and lifted the
economic tide of their respective communities through their own economic
behaviors. There are many such minorities whose constituent groups have
offered jobs, opportunities and benefits to the surrounding community while
benefiting individuals and groups within their specific minority.

This has been accomplished in such ways that a greater-than-average per
capita percentage of net benefits accrued within that minority in areas
where the need was greatest. Such benefit-sharing has been conveyed within
these minority groups through the advancement of capital on credit,
investment opportunities and co-venturing opportunities, contracting
opportunities and job opportunities. And such practices have been of
critical importance to the expansion and diversification of economic
activity within those minority groups.

In this vein, it is worth noting that our collective Native identity has
been defined in part by the historic patterns of commercial interaction
that existed between our societies, particularly in pre-Columbian times. In
that context, we are informed by oral traditions and by the record of
archaeological relics that reveal there was an extensive system of
interactive trade patterns extending northeast and northwest from Central
America across most of North American. A similar trade pattern also
extended southeast and southwest from Central America across much of South
America.

RETURNING TO ORIGINAL ECONOMIC PATTERNS

The modern return to pre-Columbian, inter-tribal economic patterns will, in
part, be based on natural preferences favoring the hiring of Native
peoples, and the procurement of goods and services from Native-controlled
businesses. It will also, in part, be based simply on the networking of
tribes and Native individuals with common investment interests, towards
co-investing in specialized or general markets.

It will be further based on the establishment of commercial Native
enterprises, and by tribal governments and non-governmental Native
individuals and groups that structure their services and products to reach
out to Native markets and facilitate specialized access to goods and
services to which access has previously been subject to barriers. In this
way, new secondary and tertiary Native industries are more likely to
emerge.

FACILITATING SUCH PATTERNS

These themes were addressed to some extent at the annual convention of the
National Indian Gaming Association, held in San Diego in April, and
expressed principally in two proposed initiatives.

The first initiative proposes to encourage the tribal government gaming
sector to be active in training and hiring Native individuals, and in
exercising purchasing practices which benefit Native companies and
companies that have a policy of benefiting Natives through employment
and/or subcontracts.

The second initiative contemplates the active development of an American
Indian Business Network that might facilitate positive results in the first
initiative described above, and have other positive effects.

The proposed NIGA initiatives echo a theme that has been the subject of
initiatives pursued for some time by the National Center for American
Indian Enterprise Development (NCAIED). These efforts were the subject of
many conference sessions and various public addresses made at the
NCAIED-organized Res 2005 conference held in February in Las Vegas.

In fact, NCAIED has long facilitated, through its networks and its Native
business support program, access in favor of Native business (both tribal
government and private sector) to U.S. government contracting preferences
(under Section 8(a) of the Small Business Act), and similar access to the
mainstream private sector business community (particularly public companies
having ethnic diversification policies).

It is clear that such continued efforts are required. The average poverty
rate for members of gaming tribes is still high: 24.7 percent. The rate for
non-gaming tribes is 33 percent.

In view of these statistics, the desirability of encouraging and
facilitating the aforementioned patterns of contemporary Native business
practices is unquestionable. But even more significantly, in view of the
rapid growth of the American Indian population over the next generation,
these commercial patterns are desirable for the expansion and
diversification of the broader Native economy.

Such diversification is also particularly desirable in view of emerging
challenges to any tribe's inadvisable reliance upon a single-industry
economy.

ADAPTING THE ANCIENT PRACTICES

There are special reasons for, and approaches to, optimizing the
implementation of such remedial collective inter-tribal practices,
especially in the case of particular standard tribal government business
sectors not limited to gaming - upon which some tribes have become
inordinately reliant. Moreover, there are tips to avoiding undesirable
complications in the implementation of such practices and efforts. These
will be explored in the next installment of this column.

Paul Frits is a Mohawk member of the Six Nations of the Grand River. He was
a member of the board of his First Nation's Business Development
Corporation through most of the 1990s, and continues to be an honorary
member of that corporation. Frits practiced Native law for many years and
has advised many tribal administrations in their public governance matters
and economic development initiatives, including casino/hospitality,
financial services, energy, natural resources, services, manufacturing,
telecommunications and information technology, cultural and other
industries. Frits volunteers his time to research and write perspective
columns on matters of interest to the broader Native community. He may be
reached at paulfrits@hotmail.com.