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What Have You Done For You Lately?

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The driving force behind recent gains in American Indian and Native Alaskan economic prosperity is not funding from state and federal programs but rather self-determination and sovereignty, a new study has found.

“The per capita income of American Indians on reservations has been growing approximately three times more rapidly than the United States as a whole since the early 1990s,” according to the report, “American Indian Self-Determination: the Political Economy of a Policy That Works.”

Those per capita increases are 30 percent for non-gaming tribes, 36 percent for gaming tribes, and 11 percent for the whole country, according to authors Stephen Cornell of the University of Arizona and Joseph P. Kalt of the John. F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. “This burst of economic development is starting from a low base, but is manifesting itself in improving social conditions and other indicators of development,” wrote the authors in the study, published in November 2010 by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, which each year recognizes economic development projects in Indian country. “The switch from federal administration to tribal administration is being manifested in investment in long-neglected infrastructure, as streets, water systems, schools, health clinics, and the like are rapidly being upgraded.”

The authors are positive that this increased prosperity in the 1990s—which they say continued in this past decade up to the 2008 recession—“is not the product of massive or even substantial infusions of resources from the national government of the United States. In fact, federal U.S. budget spending on Indian affairs peaked in real dollars in the mid-1970s.”

The report noted that Indian self-determination began “with halting steps” with the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, and noted that, “The vast majority of tribes embarked on strategies of meaningful self-rule under conditions of stark poverty.” Self-determination continued to grow in the 1980s and now “it is being manifested by wholesale changes in tribal institutions and policies as the Indian nations themselves rewrite their constitutions, generate increasing shares of their revenue through their own taxes and business enterprises, establish their own courts and law enforcement systems, remake school curricula, and so on.”

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This development has been “remarkable” and “dramatic,” the authors stated, especially compared to what preceded it. Those tribes that didn’t undertake economic development are “uniformly marked with little or no signs of development progress.”
The report cites several instances of economic progress among tribes: Real Indian household income grew 24 percent on reservations with gaming during the 1990s, and 33 percent on reservations without gaming, as opposed to four percent for the U.S. as a whole. In addition, every forestry job transferred from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to tribal ventures “results in a productivity increase of 38,000 board feet of timber output, and the price received in the marketplace for that output rises by 4.5 percent,” resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional income.

Kalt and Cornell cite several successful tribal businesses, including the Ho-Chunk Nation’s “conglomerate” of ventures that bring in more than $100 million a year. Other business highlighted are the Tulalip Tribes commercial center, Quil Ceda Village, and the group of businesses developed by the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

In the health area, tribal contracting produces an 86 percent improvement in waiting times compared to those endured under the Indian Health Service.

Why has self-determination succeeded? The authors find bipartisan support for it, including President Richard Nixon’s championing of it during the 1970s. This “double appeal” includes conservatives, who like the authority of the federal government being diminished, while liberals support the advancement of civil rights of minorities and the redress of wrongs.

However, the report finds “there is strongly disproportionate Democratic support for spending on American Indian social conditions. By the same token, there is proportionately low support for such spending among Republicans.”

Amidst all this good news is one loud, sour note: The authors found “instability” in future support for self-determination. “We might well predict that the next change to Republican control of the U.S. Congress will signal an end to policies of self-determination.”