The ANA Messenger: The Economic Development Issue
United South and Eastern Tribes Economic Development Roundtable
ANA Division of Program Operations Director, Carmelia Strickland; Program Specialist, Christina Clark; and Senior Project Consultant, Michelle Sauve, attended the United South and Eastern Tribe’s (USET) Economic Development Roundtable as part of USET’s annual Impact Week. Other federal agencies attending included US Departments of Agriculture, Energy, Interior, Commerce, and Treasury. At the meeting, USET Tribes had the opportunity to share some of their biggest economic development challenges; Federal agencies were able to provide information on their current initiatives and funding for economic development; and the group was able to brainstorm possible solutions and grand initiatives they would propose to their respective agencies and the Administration to help improve economic conditions for Tribes.
Themes from the meeting included that economic sovereignty must go hand-in hand with government sovereignty. For example, allowing Tribes to develop their land, one participant suggested “the time for trust status over land has passed” and Tribes are now in a position to make good development decisions. The long lead time in approval for leases or project approval often results in a missed opportunity. If Section 17 companies are eligible for funding, they should not have to get a Tribal resolution, because this breaks down the arms-length purpose of a separate Tribal enterprise that operates independent of the Tribe. The holding company concept was presented as a way to develop arms-length between tribal administration and business administration.
Working with the Federal Government: Better coordination for funding amongst Federal agencies was encouraged. Funding also seems to favor short term investment, that will be self-sustaining after the initial grant term, but resources are also needed for long term opportunities. Sustainability is based on the generation of revenue. Dollars need to circulate in the community. One tribal grant writer commented that the requirement for a board resolution to be submitted along with a grant application wasn’t always possible and can be burdensome to tribes, especially since the Tribe has already given authority to seek funding as part of the charter for the organization or enterprise.
Notices of Funding Announcements (NOFAs) are sometimes unclear. Two recent NOFAs (USDA and HUD) listed “Tribal organization” as eligible applicant, but did not define the term and the program contact couldn’t explain it when questioned by the grant writer. Also, some NOFAs do not address whether Section 17 Tribal Enterprises are eligible or not. Another participant noted the wait to be certified as a “minority business” was long, and this was impeding the Tribe for qualifying for some minority contracts. There was also some discussion that many federal programs limit funding to take place only on tribal lands.
There is a knowledge gap: Tribes differ in knowledge of funding opportunities and economic development initiatives. Tribes also differ in the capacity to apply because some lack grant writing skills. Tribal Leader education needs to be specific to the audience, and conducted for Tribal leaders in a safe space; what elected officials need to know versus a CEO is different. The skills and approach to maintaining revenue are different for political leaders, who are driven by decisions that need to be made versus a CEO who is driven by enterprise.
Many AI/AN small business owners lack accounting and expertise in tax requirements and insurance needs. States need to be educated on Tribes, and how economic development can happen on reservations and how Tribes operate. The States issue certifications and licenses for businesses, so it is important for the Tribes and States to work together. Some Tribal representatives stated the federal government should work with the states on these matters.
Tribes also need assistance in making connections with investors, especially venture capital and angel investors. Possible models included the Plains Angel Investment Fund or establishing a Community Trust Fund (a tax benefit to the donors). .
Tribes would benefit from mentorship (see knowledge gap). Department of the Interior mentioned their National Internship Program, a partnership with Yale University, a program they are looking into reviving. One idea generated would be a database to match Tribes with experienced individuals. The Department of Energy mentioned they offer a lot of technical assistance to Tribes, which is both objective-based and science-based. This can be a valuable resource for Tribes when they are evaluating different energy development options. The idea of Tribes maintaining connections with Tribal members living off the reservation was presented. This was related to universities maintaining connections with alumni.
There was some discussion over the pros and cons of emphasizing tribal enterprise versus fostering individual AI/AN entrepreneurs. Some felt the Tribes did not do enough to engage off reservation Tribal members and encourage them to return. Some recounted stories of individuals having an easier time taking their experience to a different Tribe. The idea that political boundaries can have negative impact on economic development was presented. One was the restriction of some funding opportunities limiting economic development to the reservation. Some Nations, like the Navajo have the Tribe, Chapters, and townships, which add another layer of regulations and ordinances which can make progress difficult. Businesses need to understand all of the legal requirements they must meet.
An idea that the host generated was a pre-qualification system for Tribes that denotes to federal agencies that they have a solid track record and meet certain standards, so their project can be fast-tracked or receive preference in contracts and funding awards.
For capital investments, the idea of a pan-tribal investment forum of pooled resources and shared risk similar to other ethnic revolving loan funds was mentioned.Others talked about developing a network of experienced native entrepreneurs that have been successful and want to encourage Tribes and other AI/AN entrepreneurs to succeed. RES (The annual Reservation Economic Summit) was one possible venue for exploring this further.