The Apalachicola River Community of Indians Tribal Organization (ARCITO)

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A Rocky Road Ahead for Indian Country by H. Scott Sewell

Posted by Hodalee Scott Sewell on July 28, 2017 at 4:05 PM

A Rocky Road Ahead for Indian Country by H. Scott Sewell

Ah, the good old days. When President Obama was in office, he and his staff many times met with native community members across the country seeking information and insights to set the direction of his administrations efforts. Once he visited young Indian people at the Standing Rock Sioux Nation in North Dakota and heard about their struggles there, and was so inspired by meeting them and what they shared that he came back to Washington, D.C., with clear instructions for his Cabinet to be doing everything it could to expand economic and educational opportunity for Indian youngsters. Few of the Indian reservations in the United States have functioning economies and more often have real economic problems. They lack in large part institutions in which residents can be employed, cash checks, and spend money within the community, and during the Obama administration the effort to make change happen was occurring even if not as fast as everyone had hoped. Indian youth especially find difficulty their lot on many reservations.

The Wind River Indian Reservation and its Wyoming Indian High School is one such community among many struggling for native youth’s future. As it does in so many tribal communities across Indian country, high unemployment persists in Wind River, the seventh largest Indian reservation in the country. Encompassing more than 2.2 million acres, the Wind River Indian Reservation is home to the Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapaho tribes. Despite this obstacle of few jobs available, hopes and dreams for their futures motivate many kids there. They all are aiming high and some want to become nurses, business owners and computer programmers, others desire to work in language preservation and cultural rejuvenation These Indians know how to fight and succeed at their goals as their basketball team has won 11 titles since the mid-1970s. During the previous administration the Department of Labor invested millions to expand job training and increase economic opportunity in Indian Country, places like Wind River.

A new state-of-the-art Wind River Job Corps Center will help student’s at Wind River to earn their high school diploma or GED, and provide them with the training and skills they need to pursue successful careers in fields like diesel mechanics, construction, and facilities maintenance, welding and accounting. The Wind River center also is the first and only in the country to offer training for aspiring petroleum technicians. Its petroleum technician training program was developed in partnership with employers Marathon Oil, Conoco Phillips, Devon Energy and Encana Corp. This is the type of investment that will provide native young people, including many reservation tribal youths, with the skills they need to compete and thrive in today's workforce, one that is increasingly technology reliant. The lack of economic development on reservations is a major factor in creating the extreme poverty, unemployment, and the accompanying social issues that Indian nations face. Tribal governments can help solve this problem by increasing the number of privately and tribally owned businesses on reservations.

The need to address ways to expand access to capital in rural communities, including an examination of the unique challenges facing Indian Country and reservations in increasing the flow of credit to Indian reservations, is ongoing under the new administration. Economic development and job creation in Indian Country is dependent in some measure on having access to capital. If business owners can easily borrow to finance business start-up and growth of existing ones, the economy thrives and grows. One thing heard often from tribal leaders, however, is that Indian Country is a difficult place to borrow money for. Reasons range from difficulties in using tribal lands as collateral, to the small number of lending institutions that serve Indian Country. As well the lenders’ perceptions that lending to tribal members or tribal governments is risky adds to the difficulty.

Since much of tribally-owned land is held in trust by the federal government, this means it cannot be sold outside the tribe to cover lender costs should a borrower default on a loan. Though the trust status of tribal land preserves a communal land base it also makes the processes for using land as collateral more challenging for doing business in Indian Country, more so than it is in neighboring non-Indian communities. There are few lending institutions serving tribal communities unsurprisingly, it is more difficult for these institutions and those native start up efforts in Indian Country seeking to borrow to gain experience with extending and gaining credit. Lenders are reticent to enter into financing with tribes and tribal corporations related to real and perceived concerns over the status of Indian tribes as governments, a challenge long facing tribes.

Tribal governments help when they provide the laws, regulations, and ethical court systems that will assist and protect incoming business and property rights; few will locate their business and risk their time and money on a reservation where the odds against being successful are high. Indian nations must make their reservations fair and reasonable locations for businesses to locate if they expect to attract investment and build economies, and truly find self-determination so long pursued.

Recently while speaking directly to Intergovernmental Affairs Officer Billy Kirkland, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said that Indian tribes need to own their lands to foster economic and infrastructure development, a view controversial in some corners. Tribes must take more initiative to be the driving force behind federal policies targeted toward new jobs and economic development in Indian Country. Having an attitude that is consistent with the policy of Indian self-determination can be crucial, but the trust status of lands lies at the foundation of Indian political identity. Any changes are often seen as threatening, with the status quo better than what is possible of too much change runs amok.

The transition in presidents has brought into stark relief the challenges that are still confronting Indian communities and the fragility of tribal sovereignty. The Trump administration thus far has few ideas beyond exploiting Indian Country it appears. Native American reservations cover just 2 percent of the United States, but they may contain about a fifth of the nation’s oil and gas, along with vast coal reserves. These resources have long been sought by many corporate interests across the years of changing federal policy. Trump’s aim of slashing regulation to boost energy production, could and most likely will deeply divide tribal leaders.

They unsurprisingly hold a range of opinions on the proper balance between development and conservation of tribal lands and resources. Trump’s main domestic policy goal is job creation, an endeavor which presents an opportunity for tribes seeking to exercise their oft professed goal of economic development. The Indian treaties negotiated in generations gone by are not a business plan, and change is needed on many reservations. The tribes need a new beginning, a new federal policy, but will Trump and his perspectives be the hoped for opportunity?

Despite success in the gaming arena, reflected by the news the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) released concerning the Fiscal Year 2016 Gross Gaming Revenue numbers totaling $31.2 billion, an overall increase of 4.4 percent, the next 4 years may be bleak. Most of the many social problems on Indian reservations can be traced directly to the staggering unemployment rates, and job creation beckons as a primary route for improvement of Indian lives. Recently Trump laid blame at the feet of the federal government for smothering prosperity in Indian Country in an official event with tribal leaders, and said tribes stand to gain financially by developing their natural resources and that he will make it "easier" for them to do just that, he promised. Trump is manifesting fears across Indian Country in his actions so far by seeking drastic cuts in education, health, housing and other key programs. Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Service and other agencies are among the many losers in Trump's fiscal year 2018 budget, which showed them often reduced to levels not seen in nearly a decade. Many postulated that Donald Trump’s policies would be threatening to tribal rights, tribal sovereignty, cultural identity, and too many of the established relationships between Indian Country and the other governments.

Many are asking if President Trump will attempt to eliminate the BIA. Recent comments by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke promised ‘bold’ Interior Department reorganization, but in the current environment of chaos and uncertainty, few have confidence on what that really means. Federal funding for Indian people has been perennially reduced for the BIA and other agencies for years, but the Trump White House continues the diminishing of the supply to Indian Country in its recent budget proposal. It appears with only $2.5 billion designated toward Indian affairs. This reduction of $370 million for the BIA and Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) alone is shocking to many tribal leaders. This is happening even as there are more federally recognized tribes, now enumerated at 567 groups with more needs than ever before. The slices of pie are getting thinner and thinner, the jostling for resources with sharper elbows. Indian Country should take a deep breath and brace for one of its most difficult chapters in generations and be prepared to pull together to weather the storm that’s brewing on the horizon.



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