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Toward a more prosperous Native America

It is time for tribal and Indian economic entrepreneurship to take a central role in Indian policy. While it is often argued that there can be no significant or enduring tribal sovereignty without economic development and the production and control over economic assets, federal Indian policy should inherently emphasize the economic development of Indian country.

Winning legal and political battles to see our children live in poverty and with limited opportunities will not take us far, and in the long run will not preserve tribal communities, governments, or cultures. The American social welfare system is still necessary for most Indian communities, but it does not propose a clear plan, or any plan at all, for future community and individual development.

Many tribal governments since the 1960s have become bureaucratic social service centers for tribal communities. Much of Indian policy is focused on tribal sovereignty issues and that is as it should be. However, the future attainment and preservation of tribal sovereignty needs broader goals and strategies. The present-day federal programs only serve part of the long-term needs of tribal communities, and provide only temporary and usually inadequate fixes to poverty, health care, justice and tribal cultural continuity. We need long term Indian policy strategies that yield sustained tribal economies that will empower possibilities for community, political and economic decision making among tribal members and communities.

Past Indian policy emphasized education, while other federal agencies emphasized health and other tribal community needs. It’s time to include economic stability as well. Currently the Small Business Administration supports tribal government business contracting and business development opportunities. The BIA supported loans to small Indian business investment programs. While economic investment programs in Indian policies have been emphasized since the Kennedy administration in the 1960s, most economic development in recent years has emerged from gaming activities, and were not directly the result of government initiatives or policies.

 The choices that come with economic autonomy promise a brighter future for Indian people and communities.

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When tribal communities have focused on business opportunities through their own initiatives, significant results were realized. Indian policy should make economic development one of its primary initiatives. Education is a powerful tool, but can only contribute to a sustainable economy and healthy communities when combined with market-based economic solutions.

Federal agencies, and in particular the BIA, support business programs that enable tribal communities to take advantage of business development opportunities that are presently available to them. Most tribal communities and cultures do not motivate tribal members to engage in market-based economies. Any BIA economic development strategy should be conscious of the alternative cultural, political and institutional pathways to market enterprise that are found among tribal communities.

The government’s Indian policy should not only facilitate the development of American Indian economic opportunities, but should also be aware, respectful and encouraging of tribal ways of approaching market enterprise. Tribal economies will consist of tribally-owned business or a mix of individual and tribally-owned businesses, as well as contain social program sectors, and some aspects of traditional subsistence economy.

American Indian communities need to approach the marketplace in ways that are most congruent with their own values, institutions and histories. An Indian policy with economic development as a central initiative will hold some promise for healthy and economically stable Indian communities. Contemporary Indian policy should facilitate formation of stable productive tribal economies, sustained political sovereignty, and retention of cultural identity and cultural choice. Indian policy needs a concrete political strategy and sets of goals. Social welfare programs, while important stepping stones, have not created the healthy communities Indians should and deserve to live in.

The choices that come with economic autonomy promise a brighter future for Indian people and communities.