By the Numbers: Tribal Economies

By the Numbers - Economies 1I’m flipping through the March 13 issue of Indian Country Today on business and philanthropy, and something obvious is hitting me square in the gut. Their article, The Growing Economic Might of Indian Country, features 36 tribes with financial gains. But only 3 of them are served by National Relief Charities (NRC), all 3 in the Southwest. As a whole, NRC serves about 65 reservations – and not a single reservation we serve in the Plains made the list.

This left me with mixed feelings. On one hand, the economic success of various tribes in Indian country is a clear win for self-determination. The 36 tribes have successfully ventured into tourism, agriculture, energy, and everything in between, and successful gaming tribes have been able to use casino revenue to branch out into other industries too.  By the Numbers - Economies 2

Interestingly, what is good for Native American economies is good for the United States overall, in that financially successful tribes are among the biggest contributors to regional economies.  And, these economies aren’t all based on casinos. For example, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe in Idaho has ventures in agriculture, gaming, manufacturing and Internet services. The Cowlitz Tribe in Washington has built an economy around salmon, smelt, and steelhead that are local to the region. The Fond du Lac Tribe Band in Minnesota started with gaming and then branched out into education, insurance, construction, logging, gas, grocery, radio, and social services. The Fond du Lac Band employs 1,400 people through non-gaming ventures.

What is most notable about these enterprising tribes is that they are shattering stereotypes and misconceptions about federally recognized tribes. Instead of being seen as a group of dependents relying on entitlement to federal benefits, these tribes have taken control of their own destinies, not only in prospering for themselves but also in helping other tribes and non-Native communities around them. The integrity and self-determination of these tribes to achieve such success and pass on revenue to the very government and people that have failed them is incredible.

The bottom line for me is that it’s uplifting to see some tribes achieving economic success. And yet, at the same time, it’s a reality check to realize that this success is not universal… that every reservation is different in its economies, cultures, and even natural resources, and thus some tribes still have a long way to go.

This is especially true for tribes in the northern Plains where widely sustainable economic opportunity is still being pursued. The Plains tribes are equally capable of achieving economic success but, for instance, the remoteness and isolation of reservations in the northern Plains present a singular, significant roadblock. If the access, resources, and opportunity to draw tourists and businesses to an area are geographically limited or non-existent, then it’s harder to visualize any form of sustainable earnings in a poverty-stricken area. It’s with this in mind that I realize why NRC still provides much needed services and opportunities in the Plains communities and all of the reservation communities that we serve.

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