National Native American Economic Policy Summit: Joseph P. Kalt: Lessons from Indian Country

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

The National Native American Economic Policy Summit was held in Phoenix, Arizona, May 15-17, 2007, with more than 500 key stakeholders gathering to discuss the challenges to growing healthy, vibrant Native economies. In addition to identifying challenges, participants were asked to recommend innovative and progressive solutions to foster economic growth. The highly-successful Summit, born out of a White House Intergovernmental Affairs (WHIA) initiative, was hosted by the Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development within the Department of Interior and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).

In this video, Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development Co-Director Joseph Kalt discusses lessons learned from Indian Country.

Resource Type

Kalt, Joseph P. "Lessons from Indian Country." National Native American Economic Policy Summit. National Congress of American Indians and the U.S. Department of Interior's Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development. Phoenix, Arizona. May 15, 2007. Presentation.

“It’s an honor for me to stand in my home state and speak to you. I don’t know quite what to think after I and my colleagues at the Native Nations Institute and at the Harvard Project have ranted and raved and written and educated and testified so much about the importance of tribal sovereignty and pushing back outside decision-makers, I don’t know what to think when the Secretary of Interior quotes me. [I’m] a little uneasy, but it is an honor to be here.

Today I’d like to talk about here in the conference sort of lessons for Indian Country and economic development but I’d like to talk about lessons from Indian Country. Those of us who work at the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona and at the Harvard Project back east, we’ve been comparing notes and we are increasingly spending our time being asked to come talk, teach, write, research in the international arena. My colleague Joan Timeche, Executive Director of NNI, goes to Argentina. Recently, my colleague Manley Begay, Director of NNI, goes to Mexico. Manley and I get invited and go to Poland where they want to know how to rewrite a constitution and they figured out that where it’s happening is in Indian Country. My colleague Steve Cornell [and] Manley [are] down in Australia and New Zealand constantly. Next month I’m going to go to North Korea. Why? Because the world is starting to pay attention to the amazing changes that are occurring in Indian Country, changes that are rebuilding Native Nations.

Indeed it is a time of tremendous change. Twenty years ago when we started picture at your own risk two nerdy White professors, our equally nerdy Navajo graduate student now Dr. Manley Begay, riding around in the rental cars trying to talk to anybody who’d talk to us. We surveyed the literature and everything about economic development was all written from a federal perspective. What could the federal government do about economic development? Well, that wasn’t working very well. American Indians on reservations were the poorest identifiable group in the United States. So we thought, ‘Geez, maybe we ought to go see what Indian Country’s saying.’ And we went to lots of conferences, you’ve all been to them. It was the very weak coffee, the really bad synthetic creamer and really old donuts and pastries in a Holiday Inn where you went to training on how to fill out the latest SBA loan application. Look at where we are today.

Indian Country is a story of resilience and renaissance. The rest of the world is watching the economic growth in Indian Country. Indian reservations, both gaming and non-gaming reservations, are growing three times more rapidly than the U.S. economy. Poland wants to know, how does Winnebago go from 75 percent unemployment to essentially no unemployment in six years. Costa Rica wants to know, how does Muckleshoot take a small tribe that was essentially evaporating and having its land taken 20 years ago and invest in itself and turn itself around to where it’s rebuilt itself as a nation and is an economic and social engine in its region. But it’s not just about economic development that the world is watching Indian Country for. It’s also about the strengthening of culture and identity.

My ethnic Taiwanese students at Harvard, ethnic Chinese on Taiwan, they want to know, how did Mille Lacs invent that program where the elders teach language on a computer while the kids teach the elders how to use computers and the kids all do the high school cheers at the football game in Ojibwe. My Masai warrior student from Kenya, now a member of parliament, calls me the other day. He wants to know, how did Nez Perce join the partnership to reintroduce the grey wolf into the Northern Rockies and end up not the partner but the driving engine because they had the smartest people, the best training, the best organization. My Masai warrior friend wants to know that because he’s worried about wildlife in Kenya. Why do my Israeli students, including the Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister, who are worried about their Palestinian Christian factions within their nation of Israel, why do they want to know? What they want to know is how did Morongo strike a partnership with the city of Banning to put their own teachers, their own tutors in the Banning schools and raise high school graduation, college graduation rates dramatically in a short time period by working with the schools next to them? These are the kind of lessons, these are the kind of lessons that the world is watching Indian Country for. They also want to watch the world…the world is watching Indian Country for lessons in power and empowerment.

We live in a time in human history, what’s gone on in Indian Country with the assertions of self-determination that many of you sit here and make daily. Really all around the world there’s been a retreat of colonial powers. It’s never complete, there’s always vestiges, it always leaves behind wounds and scars but all around the world people are asking things like: the governor in Sonora, Mexico, asking, ‘How did Flandreau strike, Santee Sioux strike that deal where we have an Indian police department, non-Indian police department as one police department. I thought sovereigns couldn’t get along.’ The ethnic Indigenous people of India want to know how did the ethnic Indigenous people of the United States commandeer one of the most valuable pieces of real estate still left in America and build the National Museum of the American Indian? The world is watching and they’re watching to learn because Indian Country is teaching the world valuable lessons in the rebuilding of nations.

This process is ongoing, it’s uneven. Across Indian Country there remain of course problems of substantial poverty, social ills but I like to say it’s at least a glass that’s half filling, it’s finally a glass where we can see progress. To be sure, it is tenuous but we need to ask ourselves, ‘Why are we finally seeing this?’ Indian Country as I mentioned, per capita income growing three times more rapidly in gaming and non-gaming tribes on average than the United States. Part of the answer is simple. Sometimes I give a talk like this and people, ‘Oh, it’s because…well, look, the base you started from was so low.’ But then the question is, ‘Why didn’t this growth occur in the 1930s, why didn’t this growth occur in the 1940s, why didn’t this growth occur in the 1950s?’ It’s real clear.

What’s changing Indian Country is the exertion and assertions of sovereignty by tribes. Those assertions of sovereignty are allowing Native peoples to rebuild their own nations according to their own priorities. It’s sort of interesting, one of the questions we get when we’re out on the road around the world is, ‘You know, we hear all these stories, tribes doing well, starting to make progress, etc., etc., why isn’t it happening across all Indian tribes?’ It turns out that the basic strategies of nation building actually work, case after case after case where you see tribes that go in and they assert their sovereignty, they exercise it in practice, sometimes regardless of uncertainty or even hostility in the law. They do like Fond du Lac and they go and they build a foster care program and they say, ‘We’re just going to place Indian kids in Indian homes.’ Or they do like many other tribes and they say, ‘We’re going to start running our own economic affairs, we’re going to build our own businesses according to our own lights. But they take the courageous steps like Osage and Crow doing the most courageous thing Nations do cause it’s so hard and risky, they change their constitutions and say, ‘We’re going to write down how we govern ourselves by our laws.’ Those assertions of sovereignty are absolutely critical. Those assertions of sovereignty are absolutely critical because they put tribal decision makers in greater control of tribal affairs and that sovereignty is critical. It’s critical because culture matters. But like other Nations in the world, tribal Nations can fight for their inherent rights of self determination, they can take back those inherent rights and then they can fall flat on their face because you have to back up the desire and the pursuit of sovereignty with the ability to exercise that sovereignty and to govern well.

We see around Indian Country it’s a lesson the whole world is learning. It’s one of the reasons we keep getting called for all these foreign trips. It’s all about institutions at some level, instituting a rule of law but an institution of your own law. Every human society, every human society lays down the way it’s going to work. It might be in a written constitution or it might be like Jemez and Israel, Cochiti and Great Britain. No written constitution but every Nation sets down a basic law that says what they are as a people and how they will rule themselves and the challenge in that is to keep that rule of law a rule of the Nation’s law, not the rule of my factions law, not the rule of my party’s law. This challenge of instituting a non-political, fair, treat-everyone-alike rule of law exists all over the world.

We were running a conference one time at Harvard on constitutional reform in Indian Country and a debate broke out. ‘This rule of law, that sounds like the quintessential Anglo phrase.’ In fact, growing up in Tucson, Arizona, that was my high school civics textbook, The Rule of Law, and a very wise gentleman from Grand Traverse spoke up and said, ‘Nah, everybody’s got a rule of law, it just means they treat everybody the same, friend and foe alike.’ But you’ve got to do it by your own lights and your own institutions. Foreign institutions destroy societies; they have done it in Indian Country, they’ve done it in Africa, they’ve done it in Latin America.

So the lessons of building good institutions, instituting a rule of your own law sit at the heart of the nation building enterprise that other nations around the world are looking at. When Manley Begay and I get invited over to Poland, what do they want to talk about? The colonial power had just pulled back, the Soviet Union. They had an old constitution from some foreign government. What did they want to talk about, ‘how do we get a rule of our own law?’ In addition to pushing for sovereignty and building institutions of capable self-government, culture matters and the world is watching Indian Country. They’re watching tribes build four-branch systems of government, not the three-branch system that most of you and I had to learn in high school but four branch systems of government. What’s the fourth branch? It’s using a council of elders or a council of spiritual leaders to be the ones who say, ‘You’re not behaving well. You need to work for the people.’ Because one of the biggest challenges anyone in the world has, any government in the world has is, ‘how do you take the people who have all the power and all the resources and a building to make and enforce the rules and keep them from turning that in their own favor or their own factions’ favor or their own family’s favor?’ It’s the number one problem around the world in getting good government is how do you keep the people who work for the government from just using that power to feather their own nests and Indian Country is teaching the world, ‘write a constitution or don’t write a constitution but adopt one that reflects your own laws, your own values. And maybe you have four branches to that government, not three or maybe you have five but do it yourself.’

This strategy then of sovereignty backed up by capable institutions that fit individual societies’ cultures apply from Potawatomi to Poland, from South Africa to Santee Sioux. It’s actually a pretty simple little formula, just go do the nation building thing. Everybody hears about it, it’s used all the time. Why doesn’t it take hold everywhere? And let me turn to that now. This is being asked around the world. Why doesn’t it take hold everywhere? Well, let’s start with the following. Take the World Bank. The World Bank is supposed to be working on economic development for developing countries around the world. I recently had a meeting described to me, ‘Well, we all sat…’ I’m an economist, I’m sorry, good with math and computers and not enough personality to be an accountant. So the economists at the World Bank sit around and they say, ‘Well, we worked out the math and we tested our pilot program and we’ll just go impose it everywhere in the world.’ One size doesn’t fit all. One size doesn’t fit all. The reason sovereignty is so critical is who’s best in position to figure out which size fits your community?

I’ll tell a story on my friend Manley Begay. Early on in our work we’re working on constitutional reforms and folks from Wisconsin, Ho Chunk, invited Manley up to help facilitate some sessions on constitutional reform. He leaves the office, he says, ‘Joe, I’ll be back in a couple days, I’m going up to Wisconsin.’ And he comes back the next day. ‘Manley, what are you doing here?’ He says, ‘Joe, they ran me out. A Navajo guy wasn’t going to be able to tell a Ho Chunk guy what to do.’ And it’s just as true everywhere else in the world. The people who are in the best…it’s a hard job but the people who are in the best position to get it right are the people from that community, are the people from that community.

Another reason it’s so hard to get it right is because, at least in Indian Country, sovereignty is incomplete. It’s incomplete in little ways, the little niggling NAHASDA rules and the scaling back the 638 funding and everything else but it’s also…sovereignty is incomplete in the big ways: the checker boarded reservations, split jurisdiction, lack of jurisdiction over non-Indians in your own state. Funny, I go into the sovereign called California, I’m not a Californian. They still enforce their laws against me. They can’t do it in Indian Country. Sovereignty is incomplete because a public, a broad American public doesn’t have a clue what it’s about. The Native voice unfortunately is a very tiny voice in American politics. At approximately one percent of the U.S. population, we have to deal with a public who can’t figure out, for example…I belong to a tribe called the Massachusetts White Yuppie Guys and they don’t see anything crazy about having their government run the most successful state government gambling business, the lottery, and they do it through all the convenience stores. It’s like an excise tax on people who are bad at mathematics. And this tribe called Massachusetts…they don’t see anything wrong about their government running a business and then plowing that money back into rebuilding a ball field, paving a road, rebuilding the Department of Motor Vehicles. Yet, when a tribe does that, and you know tribe after tribe who has done this, taken their earnings from their gambling or other industry and plowed it back into the community and somehow, ‘Oh, that’s commercial effort. Oh, we’ve got to tax that.’ We have a public that doesn’t have a clue what real tribes and real tribal economic development is doing in rebuilding Native communities.

Third, it’s hard…economic development, nation building does not succeed everywhere because of politics. Every human society, there’s vested interest in the status quo. There’s somebody making a buck off things not going very well and it’s hard to change the status quo, it’s hard to change the status quo and it takes hard work. Tribe after tribe struggles with this. They follow that nation building strategy, they set up independent boards of directors for their corporations and then they don’t trust each other because of a long history of essentially an internecine war over scarce resources provided by an outside party. But times are changing and things are being built.

It’s also hard because getting just the basics of an economic system of a nation built, who said it was going to be easy? I see in my non-Native students where I teach at Arizona and at Harvard a kind of stereotyping about Native people. And I’m not so shy as to not tell you I also see it sometimes in Native people. It’s the kind of stereotyping that says, ‘There was at some point in history a golden age where we all just got along perfectly.’ Think back on the histories of your own cultures. There’s never been a time…we’re human beings and the kind of stereotyping that says there was a golden age of perfection manifests itself as, ‘If you were only more Native like me.’ My society, ‘If you were only more White Yuppie like me.’ It manifests itself in a kind of dehumanizing lack of facing reality that as human beings we’re not going to get along perfectly. One group quite reasonably wants to build a new school with that money and another group quite reasonably wants to redo the sewer systems. Those are reasonable debates that we have as human beings. Getting it right, solving those kinds of collective problems as a group of human beings requires we make our own decisions; we back it up with capable institutions that fit our cultures. Getting that right is hard. Who knows whether this kind of court system will work for you, who knows whether this kind of economic development board will work for you. It’s risky. How do you solve those problems?

One is leadership. Leaders in part are going through a change not only in Indian Country but we see it elsewhere around the world as colonial powers have pulled back, it’s a change of mindset, a change of job definition in which the leaders say, ‘You know, my job is no longer to just administer some other government’s programs. My job is to govern. My job is to govern the people, to listen to the people and try to help the community as a whole move forward. That takes knowledge. Part of this conference is about that. You’ll be on three tracks. Learning those things are extremely important. Charisma alone won’t do it. Charisma can walk you off the cliff. But leadership that understands that it needs to educate, not just to make decisions, certainly not just to boss people around but to educate the people and explain, ‘We’re on a new track. We’re going to rebuild this Nation.’ That’s the challenge of leadership.

So Indian Country is teaching the world very important lessons. It’s teaching the world the role of leaders as educators, it’s teaching the world the role of economic development as really good governance, it’s teaching the world the role of true culture, legitimacy in the eyes of your people. It’s also teaching the world one final lesson I’d like to touch on and that is notwithstanding that we have a whole conference devoted to economic development over the next couple of days. Economic development in Indian Country is not about economic development. It’s about freedom. It’s about the freedom to make your own choices. What you’re going to serve in the school lunch program, what the speed limit is on that street, what kind of government you’re going to have, whether you’re going to develop that resource or not. I’m reminded, and some of you have heard me tell this story but it’s so wise I want to tell it again.

I had Chief Philip Martin from Mississippi Choctaw up at Harvard a few years back. Well known of course for economic development at Mississippi Choctaw. Why doesn’t anybody pay attention to the fact that life expectancy at Mississippi Choctaw was raised 15 years in only 20 years, probably the largest rise in improvement in public health we can find anywhere in the history of the modern world. Why don’t people talk about that? Hmm. Why don’t people talk about the fact that Native language use among the youth is higher than among their parents? Hmm. Interesting. Why don’t people talk about at Mississippi Choctaw they’re building a Nation, not an ethnic enclave but a Nation? And the thousands of White and African Americans who walk around working for the Mississippi Choctaw Nation wear this little button that says, ‘Mississippi Choctaw, Sovereign and Proud of It.’

So I had Chief Martin up to Harvard and he’s bragging about his economic development as well he should. Two of my well meaning non-Indian Harvard students raise their hand. ‘Chief Martin, what’s all this economic development doing to Choctaw culture?’ Now think about the stereotypes that are buried in that question. That’s a deep question folks. It’s a question being asked in Thailand, it’s a question being asked in rural America, Bridger, Montana where the society changes. It’s being asked in Latin America. ‘What’s all this economic development doing to Choctaw culture?’ And he thought for a long time and the wisest answer I’ve ever heard, and I won’t imitate the Mississippi accent, but he said, ‘Well, I don’t know. Everybody used to move away and now they’re coming home.’ Thank you.”