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Mark Trahant
Indian Country Today

What the heck is Indigenous economics … and how will this be an ICT beat for at least the next year?

That’s just the first two of many questions that have yet to be answered. What is the state of Indigenous nations’ economies? How can we measure? Is there a way to represent that in a graphic?

Then Indigenous people have a long history of being interested in economics. We have always measured and reported, counted what we have collected, grown or hunted. Petroglyphs, pictographs and buffalo hide drawings are all excellent examples.

Economic data is essential because it answers the basic human question, “How are we doing?”

This is where it gets complicated. Too many stories focus on two extreme themes, poverty and wealth.

“Historic and racist government policies forced [American Indian/Alaska Native] populations to move to remote reservations lacking in natural resources, fertile soil, and economic opportunities,” reported the Center for American Progress in a report last October. “Not surprisingly, AIAN people have the highest poverty rate (23 percent) and among the lowest labor force participation (less than 60 percent in 2018) compared with any other major racial group in the United States, resulting in cycles of generational poverty and poorer health and economic outcomes.”

The report details bleak outcomes: Thirty years of child poverty rates that exceed 40 percent and “reservations, especially rural ones, often struggle to provide adequate housing, safe communities, and quality health care and nutrition to their residents. It is not unusual to find Native reservations that lack basic access to clean running water, electricity, broadband, public safety, and job opportunities.”

Or there is the flip side common story, one told last year by Money magazine. The lede: “They say you have to work hard and chase your dreams, but if you belong to the wealthiest Native American tribe in the world, you can sleep through life and still live in luxury.”

The story picks four tribes and per capita payments made to tribal citizens because of casino gambling, noting, “more than 200 tribes earned almost $39 billion collectively in 2015. If you are lucky to belong to one of the wealthiest tribes, you can enjoy the distribution of per capita payments every month which is part of the revenue allocation plan. Of course, the more members there are, the less your share. It has caused tribal disbandment as some seek to have larger payments by kicking out fellow tribe members.”

A similar media thread reflects the cash wealth from natural resources for those tribal citizens who live on lands with oil and gas.

The poverty and wealth narratives ring true because the stories are told so often (and both backed up by data).

169 indigenous economics

Yet there are other powerful economic stories worth thinking about.

Let’s start with land. The largest landholder in the United States, at least according to most counts, stands at 2.2 million acres. The list of the “top 100” U.S. landowners ends at 13,000 acres. (Bill Gates, one of the richest people on the planet, has title to some 220,000 acres.)

Pffft. Indigenous people, tribal governments and enterprises control more than 56 million acres. And that’s just trust land. Add to that the privately owned land.

Globally, Indigenous people control even more land. The United Nations estimates: “The precise amount of communal land is not known, but many experts argue that at least half of the world’s land is held by Indigenous Peoples and other communities. Some estimates are as high as 65 percent or more of the global land area.  Indigenous Peoples hold an estimated 20 percent of the Earth’s land mass, one-half to one-third of the world’s collectively-held land. Communal land is found in all continents of the world except Antarctica, with the largest area located in Africa.”

A second story that is essential to our future and our understanding of our economics is about talent. This may be Indigenous peoples’ most powerful economic prospect. As the United States – indeed all Western nations – shrink and age, tribal people are young. And, oh, by the way, that talent pool reflects quality and quantity.

The most recent Census estimates that the United States grew by just 0.35 percent, the lowest annual growth rate since at least 1900. We know tribal communities are growing and are younger; the median age for American Indians and Alaska Natives is 31 years, compared with a median age of 37.4 for the U.S. population as a whole.

What’s interesting about the latest Census data is the decline in the White population, something that was not supposed to happen until 2024. As William Frey points out for the Brookings Institution, “This makes any national population growth even more reliant on other race and ethnic groups.”

More reliant. And that’s where talent comes into play. One example (and there are many) are the stories told by young people such as participants in the Champions of Change or the Generation-I programs found at the Center for Native American Youth. Amazing young people doing inspiring work.

A third story – one almost completely missing from mainstream sources (OK, that phrase is sounding tired now) – is about the contribution of Indigenous capital. Capital is when you use wealth from profits or other assets that are then invested in a new project. (If all goes well, capital grows again and again.) This is huge. One example that I wrote about last year is how the Morongo Band of Mission Indians invested and created a new company, Morongo Transmission, in partnership with Southern California Edison that owns utility lines. There are many more examples – so much ahead for me to write about.

The fourth economic theme involves Indigenous values. Think about the very nature of “capitalism.” As it is practiced in the United States and other industrial countries, it’s about transferring wealth to an individual, a shareholder, or perhaps a family. In an Indigenous values-based enterprise, the framework instead centers on community. Subsistence hunting and fishing is a classic example of a value (and often treaty-based) economic activity. Now more questions: Can we chart that? Is there a metric that will reflect what’s going on?

Speaking of the modern corporation, and even more questions, there is this one that’s bugging me, “How involved are Indigenous people?” So many questions. And I could rattle off more. How many Native Americans serve on corporate boards? Nonprofit and foundation boards? What does the landscape look like for the rural economy? And, can we come up with an easy-to-report metric so that people can check and answer, how we are doing?

Another topic that I will save for my next post is ESG investing. This is a look at how investors (and now the government) use the framework of Environment, Social, Governance to check what companies do (as opposed to what they say). That will be fun.

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Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor-at-large for Indian Country Today. On Twitter: @TrahantReports Trahant is based in Phoenix. The Indigenous Economics Project is funded with a major grant from the Bay and Paul Foundations.

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