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Pauly Denetclaw
Indian Country Today

The underlying issue with economic development in Indigenous communities, as noted by Democratic Rep. Gwen Moore is having true tribal sovereignty.

The Wisconsin congressional representative presided over the informal roundtable, “Economic Empowerment for Native Communities: Harnessing Innovation and Self Governance to Unlock Economic Potential,” Thursday morning.

The roundtable had a rough start after two Indigenous leaders were momentarily halted from entering the Capitol complex where the roundtable was happening. A formal investigation was conducted to discover what happened. It appears there was miscommunication about how Indigenous leaders would enter the Capitol and whether or not Covid-19 protocols were still in effect. House members apologized profusely for the mistake.

Indigenous leaders from Fort Mojave, Oneida, Ho-Chunk, Potawatomi nations as well as national policy advocates brought up several issues that hinder economic growth in Indigenous communities.

“As tribal leaders it is our responsibility to provide for the social and economic welfare of our tribal members and those living within our communities,” Timothy Williams, chairman for Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, said. “And we must meet those responsibilities without many of the resources and tools available to state and local governments. For example, state and local governments rely on taxation to raise revenue, to open new schools, hospitals or to fund public safety and medical transportation services.”

Obstacle #1: Taxes

One of the ways that Indigenous governments have raised revenue is by establishing businesses and enterprises. Unfortunately, states are trying to challenge tribal sovereignty by collecting even more taxes from businesses and tribal enterprises that reside entirely on sovereign Indigenous lands.

South Point Energy Center LLC v. Arizona Department of Revenue is a case involving an energy project that resides on tribal lands and is facing ad valorem tax from the state of Arizona. An ad valorem tax is an amount based on the value of personal property or real estate. Several Indigenous nations, including the Navajo Nation, and advocacy organizations have submitted amicus briefs to oppose this move by state agencies.

Obstacle #2: Jurisdiction

Councilwoman for the Oneida Nation, Marie Summers, emphasized that tribal sovereignty is limited by overlapping jurisdictions that can halt economic development in Indigenous nations. The government red tape continues to be a hurdle for Indigenous enterprises and community development.

“Despite recent successes, federal law remains biased against Indian Country even today,” Summers said.

Obstacle #3: Pandemic

The Ho-Chunk Nation was deeply impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic that closed their casino doors. This impacted government programs and the tribe’s payroll of $102 million per year.

“While our facilities are finally recovering. The nation is taking these lessons learned and beginning to develop a plan for economic growth, expansion, and retention of businesses,” Karena Thundercloud, vice president for the Ho-Chunk Nation, said.

Obstacle #4: Access

Dante Desiderio, chief executive officer for the National Congress of the American Indians, said economic development means nothing if there isn’t access to capital. Non-Native businesses and entrepreneurs often use property to build capital that can then be used to apply for business loans. Indigenous nations lack property rights to be able to use land to build capital.

“Indian Country is on trust land so we don’t have the same asset base or tax base like other governments,” Desiderio said. “We suffer greater when the economy goes down because we’re not relying on tax revenue. We rely on economic development to give us discretionary money to support our cultural activities and tribal government activities.”

A solution Desiderio offered to the committee was to create something akin to the World Bank. A bank that is created for Indigenous communities that understand the complexities of building businesses and enterprises on trust land.

“We’re trying to fit tribes into these programs that don’t fit,” he said.

Not only does the World Bank provide loans and grants for capital projects but it offers technical assistance to build capacity to actually use that money. Desiderio would also like to see tax credits or other incentives actually go to Indigenous communities. Right now, very few are because the people assessing those applications don’t understand the complexities in Indian Country.

“The Treasury does this weird thing with the tax credits, they allow the CDEs who receive these funds to actually read the applications and evaluate them,” Desidario said. “Treasury is giving up their trust responsibilities to tribes by having it go out to the private interest groups who have no idea about Indian Country. So we don’t score well on the applications.”

“We have really good and talented Native companies that turn in really good applications but when the CDEs receive this money and intend to give it to Indian Country, they change their minds without penalty. Because they said this publicly, it’s more difficult to deal with Indian Country.” 

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This story was corrected.