Overcoming Challenges to Business and Economic Development in Indian Country. Introduction


Business and economic development (BD/ED) in "Indian country" is critical to the success of the welfare reform efforts of American Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages.(1) Without sufficient jobs, many American Indians and Alaska Natives residing in Indian country cannot move from welfare to work and escape the pernicious effects of poverty. Tribal cultures place a high value on employment as a demonstration of personal responsibility and contribution to family, clan, community, tribe, and country (Hillabrant et al. 2000), but on many reservations unemployment rates exceed 40 percent, few jobs are available, and there is often intense competition for whatever jobs do exist. Recognizing the scope and importance of this problem, the federal government has implemented efforts to promote BD/ED in Indian country.

This report was prepared for tribal, state, and federal officials and other stakeholders in welfare reform in Indian country. It is the last of four reports on the evaluation of tribal Welfare-to-Work (WtW) programs as mandated by the Balanced Budget Act of 1997.(2) Recognizing the unique circumstances of Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages, the tribal component of the WtW evaluation was conducted independently of the overall evaluation.(3) The tribal component had a broad focus that included the development of welfare reform in Indian country, the factors affecting the success of tribal WtW and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs, and efforts to promote BD/ED, the focus of this paper.

The tribal component of the WtW evaluation relied on guidance provided by a ten-person study advisory committee that included elected tribal officials, subject matter experts, and persons experienced in doing research in Indian country. The advisory committee worked with the study contractors to define the study objectives, research methods and sites, and helped develop ways to minimize potential disruption to tribal programs associated with participation in the study.

Earlier site visits conducted for the tribal WtW evaluation revealed that the level of private-sector investment and the number of private-sector employers operating on or near reservations were too low to sustain the kind of job creation needed to move large numbers of tribal members from welfare to work. This last study focuses on the following issues:

  • Utilization of specific federal and state programs designed to increase BD/ED, and policies that affect access and incentives for tribal participation in such programs
  • Documentation of successful tribal BD/ED venturesВ  strategies that work and their impacts on job creation and tribal employment

This report describes how some of these federal programs and initiatives have been used by a small sample of tribes and Alaska Native corporations. The report also describes the legal, historical, and cultural context of tribal BD/ED; federal programs and initiatives most useful to the study tribes/Native corporations; the challenges tribes/Native corporations face in pursuing BD/ED; and the promising approaches they are developing to minimize or overcome them.

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