BISMARCK, N.D. ? It is no secret that the unavailability of jobs in most of Indian country prevents any true economic success story. The National Congress of American Indians, at its recent mid-year convention, set some ambitious goals to change that. The push is to create 100,000 new jobs by 2010, with economic self-sufficiency to follow by 2020.
With the help of the federal government agencies and private investment it can be done, said Tex Hall, NCAI President. "These are admirable and aggressive goals. These are challenges and tribes need to take full advantage of opportunities with congressional action through political strength."
Senator Kent Conrad, D-N.D., Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, told NCAI members that he is willing to increase budget requests for economic development, education and health care, and would also work on an economic stimulus bill for Indian country.
"We have laid out the challenge and Senator Conrad has taken on that challenge. Now we need support from all of NCAI and your congressional delegations," Hall said.
Although gaming has improved economic conditions for some tribes, the majority of Indian country is struggling, said W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe.
"Tribes are not accessing programs. What strategy will we come up with to require the federal government go come up with a strategy to help us? We need to get experts coming to us ? it does make a difference," Allen said.
Even though Congressional leadership agrees with the NCAI plan, tribes must be aggressive in establishing self-sufficiency programs to aid the economic growth on reservations. NCAI delegates learned the importance of a collective strategy to work on legislation during the 107th Congress.
Tribes must learn skills essential to economic growth, become less dependent on outside funding and create intertribal cooperation and partnerships, and develop good governance practices and a positive public image, which will help build bridges to other sources.
Economic success certainly has support within the BIA. Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb attended the conference to discuss trust asset reform and economic development.
"A lot of the problems we see on reservations, the social pathologies that we see are really a consequence of hopelessness and despair that are the outgrowth of no choices, no jobs, no real economy," McCaleb told Indian Country Today. "The good news is a lot of that has started to change already and gaming is no small part of that. But everybody isn't going to be a big gaming success if you don't have a lot of people you won't have big gaming, so we have to have another strategy."
McCaleb's strategy is focused on information technology, which he said will work for Indian country and make remote areas accessible to the rest of the world.
"We have to be prepared with the technology and education to be able to participate in that industry. That's where the President's budget for educational expansion, 'no child left behind' slogan, but it translates into building a lot of schools and rebuilding schools," he said.
The education budget for school construction was $60 million a few years ago; today that budget stands at $300 million, said McCaleb.
"Our goal in the BIA is to bring every child up to 70 percent efficiency in math, science and communication skills, all these are elements of building blocks of being a participant in the I.T. economy," he said.
McCaleb said that tribes must be willing to exercise their sovereignty by limiting that sovereignty, in some cases, to attract capital on the reservations. He added that some reservations have no barbershops or shoe shops that can help circulate the money that comes on to the reservations.
Establishing a reservation Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) is one way to stimulate a local economy, according to Elsie Meeks, executive director of the First Nations Oweesta Corp. While helping to develop the Lakota Fund on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Meeks and her colleagues learned the hard way about lending to tribal members. She said the tribes have a lot of assets that can't always be leveraged, so the CDFI is a good resource for promoting economic growth.
"The native community needs a ? development fund to provide capital for projects. And you won't see a lot of movement without a CDFI," Meeks said.
The CDFI loans funds on the scale of $1,000 per project to sometimes upward of $1 million. The Lakota Fund on Pine Ridge started with $1,000 micro loans to tribal entrepreneurs; now the fund is making loans of up to $200,000. The fund, started in 1985, has loaned more than $2.6 million to date.
On the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, for example, a CDFI called Four Bands Corporation has begun making $1,000 loans.
The CDFI should not be dependent on the tribal government; Meeks strongly recommended having a non-political board of directors.
"This allows the community members to develop private businesses, products and services and provide jobs, and it keeps the dollars at home. It builds a financial capacity among tribal members and a internal financial capacity of a community," she said.
Before a tribal member can take advantage of the loan process, he or she must attend workshops to learn the fundamentals of business ownership and the accounting and business practices needed for success.
"Not all businesses will be successful," Meeks said, "so the CDFI needs to have a reserve fund to absorb losses. Business lending is the hardest thing to do. Eighty-five percent of the potential borrowers have never had a checking account, seventy-five percent have never had a loan and ninety-five percent have never been in business before."
She said that it takes experience to lend properly. The Lakota fund once held title to most of the junk cars on the reservation and had a delinquency rate of 50 percent. "We didn't know how to loan and the people didn't know how to borrow," she said, adding that proper training can help correct such problems.
To help boost reservation economies, the federal government has established "Native eDGE," a clearinghouse to put tribes in partnership with financial and business experts.
Native eDGE has the capability of placing the right agency in contact with the tribes, said James Floyd, director of Native eDGE.
Its web site, at www.nativeedge.hud.gov lists every available federal program and can assign a program specialist to any group, Floyd said.
"Native eDGE helps empower a tribe or group to move forward. Native eDGE will serve as your economic staff in D.C.," he said.
Education is critical to successful economic development on reservations; from elementary through high school and the tribal colleges, the experts all said that job training and career development were vital to a community's good financial future.
"Money will come from several sources, government can assist more than it is now, but I think tribal leadership needs to decide how much and what first. The tribal budget task force identified $7 billion and the budget is $2.7 billion," McCaleb said. "Well we are not going to triple the budget in the immediate future. Realistically Congress is not going to do that. So we have the difficult task of prioritizing what these increases will need to be."