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The ANA Messenger: The Economic Development Issue

Winter 2012

Published: March 8, 2013
Social and Economic Development Strategies (SEDS), All

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Talking Stick


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This issue's author: Kimberly Romine

Economic Development – when it was first suggested to me that I write the “Talking Stick” for this quarter, I thought – OK – I can do this. Then the friendly reminder was sent me and I was reminded that my topic was economic development – I thought – Oh no, what did I agree to do? But after much thought I offer the following…

In the early years of self-determination, Tribes were thinking more about how to improve their government infrastructures and hiring local tribal members to carry out the tasks needed to help deliver services to tribal members. Later on, the realization that the tribal government cannot be the only source of employment in the community hit and Tribes began to think of other ways to create jobs within their communities.

On my reservation, all of a sudden – smoke shops – sprang up and so did gas stations that sold cigarettes to tribal and non tribal people and many of these businesses were not owned by the Tribe. I was disappointed that so many businesses were not creative and too many smoke shops and gas stations were appearing on the land. I went to visit a friend on  the Six Nations Reservation in Canada and I saw accounting services, dry cleaning services, shopping centers and a bank or two. I thought about how customers were coming from off the reservation to patronize these businesses and what an opportunity they provided – hiring from both the reservation and the local communities. I had to ask myself, why don’t the U.S. Tribes do this? Maybe there are too many regulations or other reasons for not expanding the business options. I hated to think that it was due to laziness or the lack of creativity.

With the recession, and the unemployment rate so high on and off reservations, I believe that Tribes and tribal members came to understand that neither the federal government nor the tribal government could support everyone – there were no handouts.

Today, I see more businesses opening up on reservations including hotels, tribal members serving as local guides for hunters and fisherman, or as local guides showing visitors historical sites of interest to non tribal members. Businesses that sell products such as the Tanka Bar are appearing more and more on the reservation. Tribes are entering into partnerships with regular American businesses to ensure that American products are built and sold here on American soil.

I read a story about how the Choctaw Nation came to build computer boards and became fascinated by the thought process involved. If you don’t know it, here is a brief synopsis – the Tribe wanted to build a business of some kind on their reservation to provide employment for their people. While thinking about it, it was noticed that many of the women did beading to create various items such as brooches, bracelets, earrings, etc. This work was very tedious and involved a lot of attention to ensure that beads were not dropped and the final design was not flawed. The thought occurred that these women were very meticulous with their hands and worked with very small items and that the Tribe could use that same meticulous dedication and attention to detail in the building of computer boards. They approached businesses such as computer manufacturers and asked them to enter into a partnership with the Tribe to provide these parts to them. After negotiating with one of the companies, the Choctaw Nation succeeded in providing the computer boards to the company and became the only American owned business able to provide this product without the headache of import tariffs. It was a major success for the Choctaw Nation and it ensured employment opportunities for their people.

I believe for a Tribe or Native community to succeed in creating jobs for their members they must look internally – what do they do best? What can they offer their community both on and off the reservation? They must develop a plan for increased economic development using ideas from tribal and Native community members. They must get the Tribe/community to buy into the plan and commit their support towards the success of the plan. Tribal and community leaders cannot work alone to improve the economic conditions of their Tribe/community, they must continually be on the watch for opportunities – opportunities for partnerships and financial support; continually work with tribal/community members; and listen to what they hear and feel about a particular idea. They must also support tribal/community members who choose to create businesses of their own. When a tribal community works together it can make things happen that can help to improve the conditions of the community both internally and externally.

ANA’s funding opportunities are broad enough to help Tribes and Native communities develop and implement their dreams for a better community. Let us all work together to help Native communities to come up with ideas and methods to grow! Let us work together to meet the ANA vision of Native Communities are Thriving!

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Last Reviewed: October 18, 2016