What Can Tribes Do? Strategies and institutions in American Indian economic development

May 15th, 1993 | By | Category: 5-1: Art, Media Reviews

WHAT CAN TRIBES DOEdited by Stephen Cornell and Joseph P. Kalt
American Indian Manual and Handbook Series No. 4
American Indian Studies Center, University of California-Los Angeles. 336 pp.

Review by Schuyler Houser

Putting Reservations to Work

In an interview in the Winter 1993 issue of Tribal College, Chris Stainbrook, a senior program offi­cer at the Northwest Area Foundation, pointed out a distinc­tion between business development and economic development. While business development “will focus on a specific enterprise and its produc­tion and trade of its products,” eco­nomic development looks at the needs and resources of the whole community.

In the last issue I reviewed In Business for Ourselves, which exam­ines business development by focus­ing on the problems and challenges of developing single enterprises, one at a time. What Can Tribes Do?, on the other hand, deals with questions of economic development: what kinds of policies and institutions will help to promote desirable economic outcomes in tribal communities?

In the book’s first chapter, “Reloading the Dice: Improving the Chances for Economic Development on American Indian Reservations,” Stephen Cornell and Joseph Kalt examine, in clear and non-technical terms, the range of policy choices available to Indian governments. Cornell and Kalt, co-directors of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, argue persuasively that tribal self-determination works better, from an eco­nomic perspective, than the alternatives of state or federal control. Researchers at the Harvard project have assem­bled, over five years, considerable evidence to show that, as tribes take over the management of their own policies and assets, the financial returns from tribal assets usually increase.

Economic self-determination, however, can be done in a variety of ways; “Reloading the Dice” provides a framework for identifying the kinds of choices—direct manage­ment of enterprises by tribal coun­cils versus creation of independent management corporations, for example—which tribes must make in taking control of their own resources. The authors also provide some sensible advice, based on the experiences of a wide variety of tribes, as to which kinds of choices have worked best in different cultur­al and political situations.

“The Impact of Welfare Reform in Indian Country: The Family Support Act of 1988 and the Rosebud Sioux Reservation,” by Margaret Barnwell Hargreaves and Hedy Nai-Lin Chang, provides an exceptionally detailed and thought­ful description of the economy of the Rosebud Reservation, and the role which welfare plays in the financial life of the community. The authors examine the whole range of welfare programs—state, federal and tribal—which affect members of the Rosebud Sioux tribe. They also make suggestions for incremental modifications through amendments of legislation, improved coordination of existing programs, and creation of new services (day care, for example) which might make current realities less onerous.

Ronald Trosper’s “Mind Sets and Economic Development on Indian Reservations” looks at culturally-determined attitudes in tribal com­munities towards behaviors which have economic implications. Since sales of Sony and Toyota began to raise uncomfortable questions about the inherent superiority of American business methods, discus­sion of the relationships between culture, economic success and approaches to management has become a growth industry in international academia. One result of this debate has been the publication of some subtle and insightful work on the topic; Trosper’s analysis might be strengthened by concepts drawn from the writings of, for example, Nancy Adler, a Canadian-American professor of international management, and Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist.

Two of the chapters examine eco­nomic data about specific kinds of tribal economic operations: Matthew Krepps’s “Can Tribes Manage Their Own Resources? The 638 Program and American Indian Forestry,” and Eduardo E. Cordeiro’s “The Economics of Bingo: Factors Influencing the Success of Bingo Operations on American Indian Reservations.”

Krepps compared information from 70 tribes which took over from the Bureau of Indian Affairs at least some aspects of the management of their own timber resources. His results are similar to those of other studies done by the Harvard project, and reaffirm the experienced per­ceptions of many tribal observers: as tribes take control of their own resource-based enterprises, worker productivity goes up, costs go down, and profitability increases.

Cordeiro, meanwhile, built an economic model to correlate the profits earned by tribal bingo opera­tions in 1987 with other factors, such as size of market, distance from competition, local tendencies to gamble, age of the operation and median income of the local area. His conclusions are useful, although not very surprising. He found that tribal bingo revenues are influenced most strongly by the size of the local population base and the distance from the nearest competitors.

Despite his clarity and common sense, however, Cordeiro’s chapter points out a tension which occurs regularly in scholarly writing about reservation issues. Cordeiro’s target audience for his paper (originally an undergraduate honors thesis in eco­nomics) is clearly academic. For this group, he writes crisply and lucidly. But relatively few tribal decision­makers, or for that matter elected officials in most small rural American communities, are com­fortable with such terms as “dummy variable,” “regression results,” and “multicollinearity.”

When such readers, pressed for time and preoccupied with other matters, are faced with prose that looks, to them, overly jargon-laden or intimidating, they frequently make sensible decisions about the efficient investment of their own time: they put the article down and go on to something else.

Can tribal policy-makers make use of the results of Cordeiro’s analysis? Absolutely. Do those same policy-makers need to know, in detailed technical language, the steps which Cordeiro took to reach his conclusions? Probably not. Students like Cordeiro, for their part, need to establish their credibil­ity among academic economists, particularly if they want to attract the resources—graduate fellowships, foundation research grants—which will allow them to continue to work on these kinds of issues. And to become credible, these students needs to demonstrate their knowl­edge of exactly those technical terms and methods which intimi­date non-specialists. But scholars also needs to communicate, in plain language and accessible formats, the results of their work to tribal people who need the information to secure their economic future.

Scholars working on complex technical issues in Indian country face an obligation to report their work to two separate audiences in two distinct ways, one professional and technical, the other accessible in style and format to reservation audiences. Both forms of discourse are valid; standard debates which pit elitist scholarship against watered-down popularization have little point in situations which demand interdependence between two cul­tural and intellectual communities.

In mainstream America, the pop­ular press—Time, Business Week, The New Republic, daily newspa­pers—frequently undertake the job of explaining the implications of economic research to non-econo­mists. No such means of accessible communication exist, however, for Indian issues in Indian country. Nor have tribes and tribal colleges been able to attract much governmental or foundation support for useful research on economic issues of par­ticular reservations.

Until such time as more tribal communities and tribal colleges develop their own locally-based and locally-controlled capacities for research, scholars in institutions dis­tant from reservations need to assume the responsibilities for public communication themselves.

But credit where credit is due: Cornell, Kalt and their students have done an excellent job of bringing scarce analytical talents to bear on important issues, and of making the results of their work available inexpensively to tribal communities. Thanks to a grant from the Ford Foundation, What Can Tribes Do? is available for $10 from the American Indian Studies Center, 3220 Campell Hall, 405 Hilgard Avenue, University of California. Los Angeles, CA 90024-1548. For any­one interested in reservation devel­opment policies, this book is an essential investment.

Schuyler Houser is on the faculty of Saskatchewan Indian Federated College in Regina, Saskatchewan and is a frequent contrib­utor to Tribal College.

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