Tribal Sovereignty as a Pathway to Thriving Economies

Native American tribal members have a unique citizenship status – classified as both citizens of the U.S. and of their sovereign tribal nation. And currently, there are 573 federally recognized tribes (including bands, pueblos, communities and Native villages) with formal nation-to-nation relationships with the U.S. government – 229 of those are located in Alaska while the remaining are spread across 35 other U.S. states.

Tribal sovereignty is a political status and a means by which tribal nations seek to create thriving economies and improve life for their members, as well as others in nearby communities. Tribal citizens elect their tribal leaders to office with hopes of establishing strong leadership who can improve the quality of life for all members of the tribe. Economic development, job creation and public safety are some of the main priorities tribal leaders and communities are addressing today.

In the late 1800’s, the U.S. government implemented a policy that forced tribal members to assimilate under the Allotment Act of 1887. This undermined tribal sovereignty and destroyed land bases by allotting tribal land to individual members — resulting in the loss of 86 million acres of tribal homelands. Even now, tribes continue to work on rebuilding their economies, exercising their sovereign rights to control their destinies and restore their ancestral lands. All these efforts are integral parts of building sustainable prosperity for today’s world.

Unfortunately, Indian reservations weren’t set up with a tribe’s prosperity in mind, nor were they meant to allow tribes to exercise their “sovereign” rights to manage their own affairs as they have done since time immemorial. Reservations were essentially established concentration camps – set up to remove and relocate Indians to non-Indian communities, while taking their lands, resources and means to prosper.

In 1934, Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), which laid the foundation for restoring tribal sovereignty. The IRA ended a previously destructive policy by setting forth a process that would restore and protect tribal homelands in order to provide tribal nations with tools to succeed as self-governing bodies. Through the IRA process, tribal nations are better able to deliver essential government services such as public education, health facilities, elder and veteran centers, housing, and justice facilities.

Today, it’s important to recognize that as tribal nations exercise their rights to self-govern and strengthen their economies, their sovereignty is also benefiting local nontribal communities, businesses and citizens. In fact, depending on the tribe, leakage of tribal money to nontribal economies ranges as high as $.90 of every tribal dollar earned.

For example, the Navajo Nation, “the largest tribal nation in the country with 375,804 members and 162,208 members residing on the reservation” and a land base of about 17 million acres spanning more than 27,000 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, reported $.53 of every tribal dollar leaks out to nearby nontribal economies. Another example is Frontier Village operated by the Yavapai-Prescott Indian Tribe in Prescott, Arizona, with 60 retail establishments and more than 2,500 employees from the surrounding communities.

Thriving tribal economies have a significant impact on local nontribal communities and we hope to continue championing their efforts to develop long-lasting, self-sustaining communities.

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