Overcoming Challenges to Business and Economic Development in Indian Country. Cultural Factors Affecting Tribal BD/ED

08/01/2004

There was diversity within and among tribes/Native corporations in the study with respect to the value and limits of BD/ED. At each site, there were individuals and groups with strongly held positions about development that can be classified as (1) traditionalist, (2) conservationist, and (3) pro-development. Each of these positions is described below.

The "traditionalist" position holds that traditional culture and values are fragile and have long been undermined by forces inside and outside the tribe. Consequently, most decisions should reflect preservation of traditional culture and values. Any BD/ED initiative that is judged to be inconsistent with traditional values should be rejected  cultural preservation trumps potential benefits of BD/ED. One informant said that, despite the promised economic benefits of job creation and profits, his tribe would not permit a "Disney World" to be constructed on the reservation, because such an enterprise would be incompatible with the tribe's culture and ways. The desire to protect tribal culture and values was often accompanied by a mistrust of non-Indian developers and businesses. Informants cited a long history of illegal expropriation of Indian lands and natural resources by individuals, states, and the federal government as the basis for this mistrust.

An example of how traditionalist cultural values can affect BD/ED was described by officials at Navajo Nation. Most of the land on their reservation suitable for commercial development has been assigned grazing permits held by individual tribal members. Sheep herding and animal husbandry are traditional Navajo occupations and are central to Navajo culture. Consequently, elected Navajo politicians are reluctant to force, through the exercise of eminent domain, a grazing permit holder to relinquish his or her permit for the sake of development  especially if the permit holder is a tribal elder. Informants said that many development projects have been scuttled because one or more grazing permit holders refused to approve the project. Like other communities, Indian and non-Indian, Navajo Nation has rejected developing Class III gaming on the reservation primarily because of cultural and other values.

The "conservationist" position is similar to the traditionalist one, but with environmental rather than cultural preservation the core value. However, the two positions are not incompatible  at each study site informants said that many tribal members are both traditionalist and conservationist, and reject any BD/ED initiative they judge would harm either the environment or tribal culture or values.

The "pro-development" position holds that BD/ED on the reservation can significantly contribute to the solution or amelioration of many problems, such as unemployment, poverty, poor academic achievement, and substance abuse. Such views lead people with a pro-development position to be the strongest advocates of BD/ED on the reservation. At every study site, there were individuals and groups that favored development and viewed most potential development as compatible with cultural preservation. Some tribal officials viewed concerns about the cultural compatibility of businesses and mistrust of non-Indians as unnecessary barriers to most BD/ED. One informant said, "Other tribes haven't figured out that you don't stop being an Indian just because you have a job."

Those taking the pro-development position tended to be more amenable to working with non-Indian persons and businesses. Tribal officials at Choctaw said the tribe has reached out aggressively to non-Indian businesses. The tribe has established businesses outside the reservation (in other states and Mexico) and has recruited Fortune 500 corporations to establish operations on its reservation.

Each of the tribes/Native corporations in the study pursued BD/ED to generate wealth for the tribe or Native association and to generate jobs, including self-employment, for tribal members. However, tribes varied in the relative emphasis they placed on these two goals. While most tribes emphasized job creation over wealth creation or profits, the two Alaska Native corporations value asset protection and profits over job creation. The Native corporations have fiduciary responsibility to act prudently to protect and expand corporate assets originally created by ANCSA.

Given the high rates of unemployment at most of the tribes, there is strong political/social pressure for job creation. Some tribal officials described a paradox in managing a company with the aim of employing people as opposed to making profits and creating growth. They observed that managing a company to create and maintain jobs has been the downfall of many tribal businesses. Over time, such businesses tend to have difficulty in reducing costs by discharging employees, so they become unprofitable, ultimately going bankrupt or becoming a drain on tribal resources. In contrast, businesses that are managed for profit and/or expansion have a greater chance of becoming profitable, and profitability is associated with longevity.

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