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A New Path Forward


Published April, 21 2020

Despite the persistence of colonial obstacles, Native Americans are regaining control over their lives and resources. Tribal leaders are rebuilding their nations in ways that honor their unique customs and culture while allowing their members to fully participate in and benefit from modern market economies. This economic renaissance in indigenous communities is about more than prosperity—it’s about dignity.

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The key to economically empowering Indian nations and re-establishing meaningful sovereignty is to free tribes and their members from trusteeship and federal oversight. The federal government can’t impose reform – it needs to start from the tribes themselves. Fortunately some tribal governments and native peoples are already reviving their traditional institutions that support private sector economic activities. Indigenous peoples with diverse languages and cultures are reasserting jurisdiction over their lands and people, reforming governments to be consistent with indigenous traditions and modern markets, and securing tradable property rights — some communal, some individual — in land and other resources. Beyond escaping oversight from the federal government, successful tribes are actively establishing the rule of law to spur increased economic activity. That means creating constitutional constraints on what tribal governments can and cannot do, especially related to business and investment decisions. Critical for encouraging economic activity, tribes are establishing independent judiciaries for settling business disputes that are free from political manipulation. 

In Nebraska, the Winnebago Tribe initially used casino gambling to generate an influx of capital for their nation. But it was just a first step of a strategic plan toward self-governance and economic prosperity. Instead of distributing profits to tribal members, the Winnebago tribe established Ho-Chunk, Inc. an economic development corporation that financed the infrastructure necessary to attract investors, businesses, and residents to the reservation. They adopted tribal laws and tax codes to replace federal laws and regulations. They reestablished trade with neighboring tribes. Within one decade, median household income increased over 60% and reservation poverty was reduced by 5%. “By enacting tribal laws,” explains legal scholar and Winnebago tribal leader, Lance Morgan, “the tribe expands and flexes its sovereignty. It’s really quite simple. Federal Indian law is restrictive, and tribal law is expansive.” 

In Colorado, the Southern Ute Tribe has tapped oil and gas resources in ways that minimize the impact on their natural and cultural environments. Off-reservation investments enable the tribe to provide monetary dividends, crucial infrastructure, social services, health insurance, and college education to its members. Interests and circumstances. By and large, tribes are still deciding what policies best suit their unique interests and circumstances. But it’s clear that the ones building successful economies have all established legal institutions that respect the rule of law and ensure the enforceability of contracts. Despite the persistence of colonial obstacles, Native Americans are renewing indigenous economies and regaining control over their lives and their resources. However, the economic revival of indigenous people is about more than prosperity – it’s about dignity. As Bill Yellowtail, member of the Apsaalooka Crow explains: “Indian sovereignty…means re-equipping Indian people with the dignity of self-sufficiency, the right not to depend upon the white man, the government, or even the tribe. This is not a new notion. It is only circling back to the ancient and most crucial of Indian values – an understanding that the power of the tribal community is founded upon the collective energy of strong, self-sufficient, self-initiating, entrepreneurial, independent, healthful, and therefore powerful, individual persons. Human beings. Indians.”