No Tribes Left Behind: A Smarter Plan for Economic Development

Gary Davis
Many Americans have never been to a Native American reservation. They’re often geographically isolated and underdeveloped, perpetually left off the various lists of tourism destinations. With sparse and scattered populations, tribal governments have faced many obstacles in exploring economic development, including high unemployment and infrastructural deficiencies. This creates a cycle of poverty and dependence that has continued for decades.

To break this cycle, tribes have worked long and hard to solve their shared problems, taking action when possible to bring development resources to their reservations. Every step forward has been a step toward strengthening our institutions of tribal government and creating strong partnerships with other governments and business partners. These partnerships are important to our well-being as we move forward.

On occasion, tribal lands are close enough to a commercial hub that we can operate a successful casino, hotel, or conference center, but this is too often the exception to the rule. Most tribal communities face far harsher economic circumstances – our enrolled populations are too small and isolated, making land-based stores and businesses unsustainable. We are too far from population centers, making visitors from elsewhere unlikely.

And for decades, we’ve existed without the major infrastructural investments needed to solve our recurring problems, creating cycles of poverty, unemployment, and economic depression. Tribal governments have struggled with ways to address our isolated locations; E-commerce has emerged as a very viable solution to reaching beyond these geographical limitations.

The NCAIED, the largest Indian-specific business organization in the nation, works to expand economic opportunities in Indian country. Nowhere has this expansion been more notable in recent years than in the growth of E-commerce as an economic sector with the potential to bring economic opportunity to even the most remote tribal lands and reservations.

The Internet has the potential to become the great equalizer across Indian country since it transcends geography. However, with Internet access on reservation and tribal lands at only ten percent, we still have a long way to go. In spite of these obstacles, tribal governments have begun to develop sophisticated E- commerce ordinances and regulatory oversight for these new enterprises. This governmental activity is a breakthrough for tribal governments and creates an unquestionable opportunity that all of Indian country can benefit from.

Without aggressively exploring opportunities such as E-commerce, the poverty cycle will continues to devastate our communities at a higher rate than any other. In 2010, the child poverty rate was 40 percent across Indian country. Family poverty remains at 28 percent, compared to10 percent in the United States. NCAIED has, for more than 40 years, worked to assist tribal communities with these social problems by working to support tribal economic development. We have assisted American Indian Tribes and their enterprises with business and economic development, taking our motto literally and “putting Indian country to work.” This work betters the lives of Native Americans now and for generations to come.

As an example, many tribal governments are now engaged in exploring E-commerce via internet gaming and how it can expand their gaming footprint and overall customer demographic. Other tribal governments are exploring small-dollar, short-term online lending. These tribally-owned and operated businesses create jobs on the reservation while raising revenues for critical government programs and services. These online lending businesses are an example of tribes exercising their sovereignty and helping to build a better future for their communities.

Tribes today have become very sophisticated and understand that in order to advance and diversify their economic development pursuits, for the well being of generations to come, new approaches must be taken to generate sustainable revenue. Organizations like, the Native American Financial Services Association (NAFSA), have been created to advocate for best practices. As more tribal governments continue to find ways to overcome centuries of obstacles to economic development, it is clear that tribal engagement in exploring new global financial opportunities is critical, especially for tribal governments that have been left behind, until now. E-commerce stands to be a tremendous opportunity for tribal economic diversification and one that tribal governments can and should be immensely proud of.

The expansion of tribal economic development into various new sectors, literally, represents the NCAIED’s mission of “putting Indian country to work”  through creating jobs and economic development for our people. It also figuratively represents the NCAIED’s mission of putting visionary minds throughout Indian Country “to work” and encouraging a whole new generation of thinkers and doers who have the heart and the vision to achieve and pursue opportunity now... for the benefit of generations to come. That is what those who walked before us did, and what we must do, to ensure that no tribes will ever be left behind.

Gary Davis is president and CEO of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development (NCAIED).




Anonymous's picture
Thank you for your words. I returned to the reservation about a year ago and based upon my observations and through my parents' general contracting business, I notice that the infrastructure is severely lacking to support a private sector. Even adopting 25 USC § 415 could help the private sector along with updating the procedures and documentation. The basic necessity that I see missing is a General Plan, not only for the tribe but the communities as well. It is great seeing communities receive new services, like a Department of Transportation. However it doesn't serve it's purpose when the DOT office is located a mile from the community, accessible by vehicle and dirt road and there are no sidewalks in the community to support pedestrian mobility. Building our people to become entrepreneurs while planning our communities with intention are my recommendations for tribes.