Capitalism On the Rez: Book Explores the Forms of Economic Development in Indian Country

Douglas Nash
9/9/12

There are many lessons to be learned from the history of economic development in Indian country. Most can be traced to the litany of federal Indian policies that have been uniformly antithetical to the interests of Indian tribes and people. Traditional tribal economies that were based upon natural resources and long-­established relationships with neighboring tribes were destroyed by federal laws, policies and treaties aimed at opening tribal lands to settlement by non-Indians and confining Indian people to an ever-­diminishing land base on reservations. Subsequent federal programs intended to stimulate tribal economies were uniformly unsuccessful. With the advent of gaming in Indian country, there are some conspicuous successes. Most, however, have realized much more modest gains and some, none at all.

In Reservation ‘Capitalism’: Economic Development in Indian Country (Praeger, 2012), Professor Robert Miller of the Lewis & Clark School of Law delivers a blueprint for the next chapter in this history. The book is not a review of the phenomenal economic achievements realized by a few tribes. Rather, Miller’s is a close and serious look at the need for all tribes to build—or rebuild—their economies and a practical analysis of how that can be accomplished. Mixed within this analysis are considerations of the impact of economic development successes with traditions, culture and tribal sovereignty.

Miller provides an overview of traditional tribal economies, dispelling some myths that have persisted over time regarding individual ownership of property and wealth accumulation. He then offers a look at the current state of tribal economic development and economies. The statistical information provided as background for his analysis is ­compelling.

Among other things, Miller notes that the number of federally recognized tribes in the United States totals 565 (it has since risen to 566). The total number of acres owned by tribes and Alaska Native Corporations is 100 million, despite years of federal policies aimed at depriving them of traditional lands. And the annual revenues generated by Indian gaming are as high as $26.7 billion.

In examining these and other areas, Miller provides a look at three tribes and what they have done to develop their respective economies. They represent good examples of different levels of success and potential. He draws upon statements by tribal leaders to support both the need and benefit of economic development, e.g. Oneida Nation Representative and Chief Executive Officer of Nation Enterprises Ray Halbritter, who has famously said, “We tried poverty for 200 years. We decided to try something else.”

Any viable economy comprises different components. Miller builds upon the historical and current background that he has reviewed to describe the roles of tribes, individual Indian entrepreneurs, and non-Indian investors and businesses in a reservation economy. If there is a bottom line to Miller’s work in this book, it is that tribes are key to establishing functioning economies on their respective reservations. The creation of reservation economies will not happen by accident or without the pursuit of a thoughtful course of action designed to attract, create and nurture economic ventures. As is obvious with gaming and myriad other businesses, tribes are in the business of business.

At the same time, they are governments with the potential of shaping the climate on their reservations that will stimulate economic development. Miller describes this as a “business-friendly environment.” Simple in description, it is complex in reality. He describes a number of essentials; high on the list are independent tribal court systems that are not subject to political influence. Attorney judges, familiar rules of procedure, separation of powers and laws and policies against impairment of contracts all demonstrate the existence of an independent judicial system. Tribal sovereign immunity and a tribal tort claims act are among additional considerations that Miller discusses.

Miller’s book is not only practical but also realistic and timely. It subtly underscores the fact that tribal economic successes to date have occurred when tribes were in control, and he presents that as the basis for the next chapter of economic development in Indian country. This is recommended reading for tribal leaders, planners, Indian and non-Indian entrepreneurs and anyone interested in seeing a glimpse of the economic potential that lies in Indian country.

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Douglas Nash is director of Center for Indian Law and Policy at Seattle University School of Law. This review first ran on the website Buffalo’s Fire. Reprinted with author’s permission.

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