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Whither the Wealth of Indian Nations?

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The enclaves of knowledge where people take a quality professional approach to economic and financial matters continue to grow in Indian country. This is all to the good. Tribal peoples have been severely marginalized across the hemisphere, but particularly in North America, where the gap between modern industrial wealth and dispossession and poverty is so stark, the thought of financial power being exercised by Indian people seemed almost a contradiction.

As an extended circle of related tribal nations, Indian people had not moved in powerful economic currents in this country since the ancestors first defended sizeable pieces of territory and natural resources. We know of course how by hook and by crook, by two-tongued pen and by the cold steel of death, 90 percent of all that physical manifestation was lost, along with much of the cultural life and the political will of our peoples.

Cohesion as kindred peoples, not always cordial or even politically functional, still sustains among most tribal nations; this is the source. It has endured huge indignity and catastrophe and is the primary fountain of strength by which a more modern-day skilled and educated Indian population could really cement ancient and established rights in a consistent growth toward just and prosperous futures.

As always in rapidly changing times, new skills are needed, are being commanded and put to work. Just as the 1950s and 1960s saw a new crop of Indian educators and social workers come along and the 1970s witnessed the growth of a core group of Indian lawyers who could litigate from the inside, so the 1990s ushered in more formal training in the business and managerial professions. The trend was visible even in the early 1980s but accelerated explosively with the advent of the gaming revolution.

Even now, near two decades later, the Indian financial revolution is only in its adolescence. It requires more than ever a great boost of recognition and attention - not preferably in conflictive ways, but in cooperative (ie., mutually beneficial) approaches - where the values of the fundamental culture can always be guaranteed a central guiding place among the core principles of appropriate business and community development for tribal peoples.

It was good to see this approach to principles emerge at a couple of recent Indian finance and business conferences, amidst many wide-ranging recognizably intelligent strategic conceptions and proposals.

One, the Inaugural Tribal Wealth Management Conference, gathered the go-getters among tribal financial officers and representatives of the broader financial industry. It was held at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino (Fla.) and networked through the United South and Eastern Tribes.

Consider these guideposts:

  • Preservation of new-found wealth for the future generations
  • Encouraging financial firms to advance Indian employees, deepening the range of skills available generally to Indian country
  • Adopting the major potentials and documented successes of the Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs), which are designed to foster small business and homeownership
  • Practically, to create an organization focused on finance and economics, much as AISES now functions for science and engineering.

Another conference, the National Indian Business Association Annual Conference and Trade Show, held in September but that still reverberates, concentrated on identifying keys to success in the financial world. Excellently reported for our pages by Washington correspondent Jerry Reynolds, it features in part the prescriptions of Chuck Johnson of the Johnson Strategy Group, who outlined some important markers.
Key to success in accessing capital from the private equity sector, Johnson taught, require quality people and strategy in:

  • Big picture economic planning, as well as entrepreneurial initiatives, for the tribe
  • Incorporating a "tribal investment portfolio" approach
  • Demanding due diligence processes for business deals; overlapping with the tribal wealth conference, where casino executive Hugh Lordon stressed the importance of: "Knowing your potential partner. Who are you dealing with? What are they up to?"

Tribal ventures - in cases, joint tribal ventures - now reach beyond reservation territories, even into the global economy.

Or of utmost importance:

  • Creating a crosswalk between tribal sovereignty planning for the governmental operations and the type of extremely detailed operational planning needed for business success
  • Committing to more detailed operational enterprise planning

Pechanga Band of Luiseno Chairman Mark Macarro, among other enlightened leaders, is calling for a "national economy for Indian country." We thoroughly agree with this concept and will continue to endorse it in these pages.

There exists great and wise counsel in this range of advice. No doubt, business has its own, primary, efficiency-toward-profit logic, but this must be adaptable to the overall building and re-building of our peoples, not only to a "business class," not only to a "purchasing agent class," not only to a "millionaire class," not only to a "leadership class." Clearly, this approach will not come automatically, even if the Native cultures by and large prescribe it.

It fell to Oneida ambassador, Keller George, who tirelessly contributed to the building of USET and is the organization's elder conscience, to gently admonish the various publics in that audience. The tribal sovereignty economic revolution is "not about accumulating wealth," George reminded everyone, to considerable reception. "We are doing this for unborn generations, still beneath the ground."

For the upcoming crop of Native college students we say this: If initially business language is alien to you, you are not alone. Many Native professionals and activists have had to catch up, having been brought up to distrust business, as earlier they were right to distrust education and religious institutions. We are convinced here, however that our peoples must fully accommodate in the common intelligence a magnified understanding of the complex world of business and high finance. The new dimension, as fraught with conflictive pitfalls as it is, excites for its promise and potentials: it is absolutely necessary to the capacity of any people in today's world to be able to handle major economic affairs.

To assess the tragic loss of billions of dollars in American Indian life enhancing assets to federal corruption and mismanagement, we need go no further than the Cobell class action suit. Maybe there was nothing in that 100-plus year old process that anyone could have stopped, but now we (as a collective of distinct peoples) are at the helm in many places of serious opportunity to recapture a solid piece of what is ours, truly, for the seventh generation to come. It's serious business indeed, business that offers so much potential provided American Indian wealth is retained under Indian control and used wisely.