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American Indian
Sovereignty Is an Asset
By Sherry Salway Black (Oglala Lakota), Board Member, First Nations Development Institute


Successful economic development in Indian Country is occurring as Native nations and individuals assert control over that development. In the past, Native economic development was driven from the outside. Tribes didn’t control their economic development; they rarely even controlled their own assets. In the past, strategies of economic development—strategies imposed by outsiders—focused on employment opportunities and income generation. While these strategies have a place, current asset-based strategies are succeeding because they are Native-controlled strategies that generate wealth. As Native nations and individuals control and build their assets, they generate the jobs and incomes that sustain Native economies.


Native nations are increasingly asserting such control. Tribes own many assets—land, natural resources, financial resources, and institutions—and are controlling these assets. Asserting control over assets, however, can be complicated. Consider land. Many of our reservations are fractionated. Native owned and non-Native owned lands are intermingled within reservation borders. How can we use our land for purposes of economic development or protect it environmentally when our ownership is fractionated?


Native nations are discovering solutions to such problems. We are asserting control over land functions previously controlled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. We are imposing regulations over lands we do own. We are using geographic information systems to track land ownership. Some tribes are even beginning to purchase back lands that have gone out of Native ownership in order to reconsolidate their holdings. These strategies restore this critical asset into our control.


As Native nations assert control over assets, they can utilize those assets to their own benefit. Tribes have always owned but rarely controlled the assets held in trust by the federal government.


How poorly these assets have been managed and how little wealth has been created! Now, controlling these assets means controlling our futures. In the 1960s, the Southern Utes assumed management of their vast natural resources. Now, they have close to $1 billion in a growth fund. And not only can tribes manage the assets they control to their own benefit, but they can leverage these assets to create new assets. In the mid 1980s the Saginaw Chippewa asserted control over their trust money and invested this money in a regional financial institution. The tribe not only managed this investment, but also leveraged its influence with the financial institution to secure mortgages for tribal members. Similarly, in 1985, the Lakota people of Pine Ridge established a community development financial institution, the Lakota Fund. While that institution was in itself an asset to the community, it helped to create new assets: Native-owned businesses. These businesses in turn created jobs and generated income. That is what assets do!


I believe that no discussion of economic development should be a purely economic one. By asserting control over existing assets and creating new assets, Native nations realize intangible as well as tangible benefits. Controlling assets fundamentally changes the way we think. When we control our assets effectively, we generate empowerment, social respect, good will in our communities, and, most importantly, control over our cultures. Consider the Tohono O’odham Community Action organization of Arizona.


This nonprofit, supported in part by the First Nations Development Institute, enabled the Tohono O’odham to regain control of their Native food system by bringing lands back into the agricultural production of Native food products. This nonprofit was interested not only in economics, but in also community health and culture. As a result of their efforts, a traditional ceremony that had not been performed for forty years because of the loss of farming ground was reestablished. That is an intangible benefit of economic development. Or, as I would argue, it is a very tangible benefit to which it is difficult to assign a monetary value. By asserting control over their assets, the Tohono O’odham reclaimed and strengthened their culture.


Current economic development in Indian Country demonstrates again and again that sovereignty is an asset. In addition to our cultures, our sovereignty—our ability to control our own destinies—is our greatest asset. While the idea of sovereignty has been ill defined for many years, over the last 10-15 years tribes have better understood and exercised their sovereign rights. I know that tribes’ efforts to exercise sovereignty effectively will only increase. What it means to truly exercise sovereignty has lacked definition in the modern era. However, in the last 10-15 years tribal nations have been exercising their sovereignty in many evolving and exciting ways.


Now, tribes are exercising sovereignty to promote economic development by making that development a priority and by carefully considering how that development ought to be controlled. When I refer to the control of economic development, I don’t mean the control of the institutions of tribal governments alone. Native control of government institutions is, of course, critically important, but Native control must extend beyond tribal governments to the nonprofit and business sectors. Native control must extend throughout Native society. We must control our own institutions.


Of course, Native control of economic development raises challenging questions. Should tribal governments control all of the economic development within their communities or should they share that control with the business and nonprofit sectors? Certainly, there are some roles that tribal governments fill best. Tribal governments can establish regulatory frameworks that allow economic development to flourish. Tribal governments can ensure a separation of powers not only between their own executive, legislative, and judicial branches, but also between their political structures and Native businesses. And, of course, tribal governments can effectively direct economic development. This is their sovereign right.


Still, tribal governments have found and will continue to find valuable partners for economic development in the business and nonprofit sectors. Many tribal governments are aware of the value that the business sector brings. Many more need to become aware of the value of the nonprofit sector. At their most basic, nonprofits supplement government services—filling voids or making up for inefficiency. At their most vibrant, they work in partnership with both government and businesses to promote Native economic development.


This is in addition to their many strengths in other areas I would argue that this diversification of control is critical to Native economic development. Many tribes that have succeeded as a result of tribally controlled economic development are recognizing the need to diversify. The Southern Utes are diversifying. In addition to diversifying their portfolios beyond energy-related interests (the base of their wealth), they are interested now in encouraging small business development.


Similarly, the Mississippi Choctaw are now supporting individual businesses as well as tribal businesses. On the other hand, in many tribes where individual businesses and nonprofits have driven economic growth, tribal governments are now learning to assume their rightful role as supporting this effort and seeking ways to partner and collaborate. I would like to see all tribal governments, businesses, and nonprofits work together to design successful diversification strategies.


Native control of economic development requires not only skilled leadership across the government, business, and nonprofit sectors, but also capacity within the broader tribal community. Our people are an asset in which we must invest in order to ensure our survival as peoples and our futures as well as economic development. Tribes and tribal institutions are discovering ways in which to build Native capacity. In this regard, tribal colleges are tremendous assets. More and more tribes are recognizing tribal colleges as institutions that can promote economic development in many ways. Of course, not every tribe has a college. Tribes are recognizing the importance of other forums for learning.


The First Nations Development Institute and other tribal groups have dedicated several years to developing, disseminating and training many Native people in a financial education curriculum. Building financial understanding and capacity is critical to sustaining the economic development of Native communities. Other institutions, such as American Indian Business Leaders, work to enhance the Native workforce by identifying and supporting students interested in pursuing careers in business.


We confront these and other challenges as we work to control our economic futures. In addition to asserting and diversifying control and building capacity, I consider two challenges of serious concern.


First, I am concerned about the economic disparities that make communication between tribes increasingly challenging. There are real divisions between tribes with resources and tribes without; there are tensions in a society that, historically, has been quite equitable. Despite these divisions, tribes need to come together to identify common goals and a common vision. I don’t mean that there will be a common plan for economic development or a “one size fits all” solution—the sheer diversity of tribes will prevent this—but we should do better at identifying and disseminating the strategies that are working throughout Indian Country and define our political advocacy and public relations strategies to support this development.


Second, we must recognize that as we assert more control, we will confront resistance from the federal and state governments. I am very concerned that as tribes control their economic development, this control will be challenged through legislation, regulation, and judicial decisions. We must not allow our tribal sovereignty to be undermined.


Still, I am confident that we can meet these challenges. I am optimistic about Native economic development and the future of Native nations. Although the day-to-day developments may not seem significant, I can look back over 25 years and recognize the dramatic changes that have occurred. As I look towards the 25 years ahead, I feel confident that the changes to come will be more dramatic still.


Reprinted from The State of the Native Nations by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.

Related Articles & Links
We Are a Sovereign Government by Hon. W. Ron Allen (Jamestown S'Kallam Tribe)
Educate. Educate. Educate. by Hon. Marge Anderson (Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe)
Sovereignty is An Asset by Sherry Salway Black (Oglala Lakota)
"The Supreme Court’s Changing Stance on Tribal Sovereignty" -Philip J. Prygoski
National Congress of American Indians: Tribal Governance
History of the Tribal Self-Governance Initiative
Myths and Realities of Tribal Sovereignty: The Law and Economics of Indian Self-Rule
Tribal Court Clearinghouse: Native American Nations
U.S. Treaties with Native Nations
Native American Rights Fund