Robert Miller: Creating Sustainable Reservation Economies

Native Nations Institute

In this informative and lively talk, law professor Robert Miller discusses the importance of Native nations building diversified, sustainable reservation economies through the cultivation and support of small businesses owned by their citizens, and offers some strategies for how Native nations can then leverage the economic activity of those businesses.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Miller, Robert. "Creating Sustainable Reservation Economies." Emerging Leaders Seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. November 7, 2013. Presentation.

Stephen Cornell:

"We want to turn our attention from courts to economies in this next presentation, and we're very fortunate that we were able to persuade Bob Miller to come down and talk with us this morning. It's my pleasure to introduce him. Robert Miller is a citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. Bob's been engaged in Indian law for more than 20 years now. He's served as a judge, a justice, is now I think Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals at Grand Ronde and is currently Professor at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. You can read the details of his bio in the book...the curriculum booklet, but he's recently just a year ago published a new book called Reservation Capitalism: Economic Development in Indian Country that's now available out there and some of you may want to look for, but it's a pleasure to have Bob down to talk to us a little bit about creating Indigenous economies and sustainable communities. So please let me welcome Bob Miller."

Robert Miller:

"Thank you, Steve, and thank you all for being here and thank you for inviting me from Native Nations Institute. I gave this talk last night to a class at ASU [Arizona State University] and I took an hour and 40 minutes. I don't think I have an hour and 40 minutes today. In fact, I've been asked to talk for about 20 minutes and then leave the floor open for questions and we'll see what you want to talk about and what comments and questions you might have so I'm going to have the materials and the slides in the book, the slides go way beyond 20 minutes so we're going to roar through this.

As Steve mentioned, I've been working on economic development ever since I was hired as a professor. In 1999, I was hired as a full-time professor at Lewis & Clark [College] in Portland, and the first topic I wanted to address was economic development in Indian Country. I do not think I'm overemphasizing this point: I think that economic development may be the most important issue you are facing as tribal leaders. As tribal communities, we need to create sustainable homelands where our people and our citizens -- if they choose of course -- where they can live and have access to adequate housing and adequate wage jobs. How are our reservations going to be sustainable communities, that next seven generations that we think about and talk about, how are we going to have young families able to live on reservations, to attend tribal colleges to learn language from elders, to learn culture from elders. So when I'm talking economic development, I'm talking about far more than just making money and I'm not talking about making the next Indian Donald Trump or making someone rich. We're talking about making reservations sustainable communities that continue to survive for those thousands of years that we already have.

So I have a couple of just sort of prime messages that I wanted to write in this book and the very first chapter is really just...let's look at all those really at the same time. So my number one chapter, I guess it's chapter two, but I'm trying to establish even for Native peoples, but certainly for the American society at large, that Native communities supported themselves by intelligent, hard work for centuries, and dare I say that it was entrepreneurial, family type businesses. We didn't...the picture of Americans is that Indians frolicked through the forest like wood nymphs living off the bounty of nature. I think there's a nefarious purpose for American society to have that vision. I think that helps their consciences feel less guilt about the taking of this reservation -- excuse me -- this continent and the resources. So they'd pretend that Natives didn't own private property, they'd pretend that Natives didn't know how to develop resources and to protect and marshal those resources to have an economic life that they could live and survive in.

I have a quote in my book that's interesting: What's the economic year? I'm not an economist and I don't use that many economic terms, but there's a few points I want to make today. Your economic year is how long it takes you to create...either to earn the money or create the resources for you to survive for a year. And what I've read is that most tribal peoples survived on a three- to four-month economic year. They could either grow, harvest, hunt or gather the products they needed to support themselves. What's your economic year now? What's the average American economic year? It's fifty weeks, isn't it? "˜Cause doesn't the average person only get...gee, whose economic system was better? So I'm trying to drive home a point to American Indians that we did work intelligently, we did know how to create economic valuable properties and we did understand private property. And let me address that because I think also American society thinks, "˜Oh, Indian people don't own property. Gee, you don't want to work, dude, because you don't own property.' Well, I dare ask you what that you have do you not consider your private property? Our lands, we view tribal governments as owning lands in common and that certainly has been our history and then sort of the legal property regime, but in chapter two of my book I talk about economic principles of tribal governments. Even though land was held in common for the tribe, individual families acquired private property rights. I cite the Hopi Tribe and various Pueblo tribes where various planter chiefs maybe, if that's the correct word, would assign plots and lots to various families, but they would then grow, harvest and those crops were theirs to use as they saw fit. And as long as that clan or family used that resource, it was in essence private property.

Where I'm from, the Pacific Northwest, I know a fair bit about the salmon cultures and the Columbia River. Native families up there would own prominent fishing rocks. Native families built wooden platforms to fish over the rapids at Celilo Falls, for example. Those were private property. No one else used those items without the permission of the tribal family. They were even inheritable property. That's something that some people, [it] would just boggle their mind that Native societies had a vision of private property. And in the tribes...the Makah Tribe at the very northwest tip of Washington and then their relatives up Vancouver Island, the Chul-nuth people, they took the ownership of what today we call intellectual property -- that's the second-to-the-last point I have there -- to a high degree that I think most Americans are unaware of. In the cultures of the northwest and into British Columbia, you owned songs, names, totem symbols, ceremonies, dances, and no one else would dare to use those privately owned intellectual pieces of property without permission of the recognized owners. The potlatch ceremony, I know Professor Trosper's written a lot about that. In fact, he's coming to speak at a conference at our school in February. So if any of you want to come to Arizona State February 27th and 28th, we are having a two-day conference about creating the tribal economy. So that's primarily what I'm interested in, what I'm talking about.

So the one economic term I'll put forward to you today is the idea of leakage and the multiplier effect. Again, I'm not an economist so I've learned these recently, but what do they mean? You've probably lived the idea of leakage. That is when money leaves a community sooner than is optimal. In 1994, I heard a Navajo tribal official say that 84 cents of every dollar a Navajo person receives leaves the reservation immediately. Now that is the case on practically every reservation I'm familiar with. Why is that? Because there are no businesses. There's no place to spend the money on the reservation. So the reservation that I'm actually the most familiar with is the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana because I worked for the Tribal Housing Authority for over three years. The first time I went to Navajo or, excuse me, to Lame Deer to apply for the job I got the map out, saw how I would fly there and then drive there and I said, "˜Oh, I'll just stay at the motel at Lame Deer.' Now you know where this story's going don't you? Good thing I had my tent and my sleeping bag with me because I slept on the front yard of my friend's house. So I go, I show up in Lame Deer, there's nothing to eat, there's no place to buy anything. The only business is a tribal gas station and there is an IGA store owned by a non-Indian. So that really started to open my eyes to some of the issues that economics face in Indian Country.

So I should ask Professor [Ronald] Trosper this, but I think economists say that a dollar should circulate in your community five to seven times. That's sort of the optimal goal before it is then taken and spent elsewhere. So that's what's called leakage, but in Indian Country with almost nowhere to spend your money, what happens? We know that our people get in the car. Perhaps there's not even a bank on the reservation. At Northern Cheyenne there was no bank. No reservation in Oregon that I'm aware of. Well, I better preface that, very few banks on reservations. As of a few years ago and I cite that in my book, only eight tribes owned banks. My tribe purchased a bank. We're in a small trust land-only corner of northeastern Oklahoma, but we purchased a bank by buying shares in that bank so sort of a different way just through the stock we ended up buying a bank. I do not know the number of how many tribes own banks today, but banking in Indian Country as you are well aware is an issue and so where can you cash your check? So at Northern Cheyenne people would get whatever kind of check they got from working or government or whatever, 42 miles to Hardin, Montana, that's where they would cash their check. One hundred and two miles to Billings, that's where they could cash their check and that's where that money got spent. That's a disaster for economic development for what we call the multiplier effect being spent on the reservation.

So what I have been talking about is creating businesses in Indian Country and emphasizing the importance of economic development. I meant to read you a quote of a couple chairmen that I interviewed for my book. Because this idea that economic development is the most important issue in Indian Country, many people might go, "˜Wait a minute, what about sovereignty, what about jurisdiction, what about social welfare issues? All those things are important.' Well, what I mean is that all of those issues are tied up with having an economy and having economic resources so that a tribal government can engage in social welfare programs, economic development welfare programs, improving their court systems as we just heard about, and in doing all the things that government is expected to do and what we hope [for] from government. But economic development is also crucial for individual Indian families to support themselves and to contribute to supporting their community and to educate their children, feed their children and help just the lifestyle of the reservation -- lifestyle, wrong word, the improvement of economic conditions in Indian Country.

So here's what Chairman Clifford Marshall of the Hoopa Tribe in Northern California told me back in '99. He said, "˜There's nothing traditional about having the federal government take care of us. There is nothing cultural about that.' 'My idea,' the chairman said, "˜of tribal economic development is that sovereignty is economic independence. Until we get there, we are not independent.' Another chairman from the Umatilla Tribe, Antone Minthorn told me, "˜If you own the economy, it won't hurt culture.' So we always run up against that question, "˜Is economic development somehow anti-Indian?' And that was one of my primary goals in working on this book. Native people have always worked intelligently and hard and even at risky businesses. It's not safe and easy to go whaling, is it? It's not safe and easy to be a buffalo hunter, is it? These are dangerous occupations. But Native peoples knew how to acquire resources and how to use them, even if that included distributing and sharing resources through giveaways perhaps or the potlatch ceremonies from the northwest. We knew how to use resources to support our cultures and our societies and I think we're in that same place today or we need to be in that place today. So I'm going to just quickly slash through some of this. I don't want to spend any time on that.

I am tired also at looking at these statistics. Maybe you're tired of talking about these things. I want to talk about improving issues. I don't want American Indians to be the least-educated, specifically identifiable racial group in the United States. I don't want us to be the least healthy group in the United States. I want us to improve our situations. And can we rely on the United States to do that? Does the United States care? I have a statement in the book, "˜Okay, we've relied on arguing you owe us certain things under our treaties, you have a trust responsibility for us, help us, assist us.' Well, we've waited 200 years for that. How's that worked out for us? Well, here's the situation. So if we don't do it ourselves, who's going to do it? So that...when I'm talking about creating an economy, I'm talking about intelligent tribal government and intelligent tribal communities working together to create a public and private economy in Indian Country. We often do rely just on you folks, the elected tribal leaders and we think that it's the tribal government's job to create economies and that's not completely true, is it? You create the conditions in which an economy can thrive, just what we heard about the tribal court system. Without laws for commercial issues, without laws about how you incorporate on a reservation, how you lease land on a reservation, without effective bureaucracies -- which the Harvard Project has taught us -- without effective institutions economies can't thrive. Entrepreneurs will go elsewhere. I have a cite or two in my book, a quote or two, excuse me, about Arizona Natives who started a business and they said they were going to open that business in Phoenix and not on their reservation and they had some reasons they didn't want to do that. And so that like kind of hurts me. We hope that Native entrepreneurs will consider their own reservation, will create jobs, will become mentors, and will help that new generation of young people to see that, "˜Gosh, being an owner of your own business is very much Native and is very possible.' So that's what I keep pushing for.

These statistics are quite old. You can see this is based on the 1992 Census and this chart is created by ONABEN. I was on the Board of Directors for ONABEN for 12 years and that's why when I became a professor this was the topic I wanted to write about. ONABEN stands for the Oregon...look at that, I can't hold that pointer steady. You guys are making me nervous or something or maybe it's that I'm 62. Oregon Native American Business and Entrepreneurial Network. Four Oregon tribes created ONABEN in 1992 because they knew that they needed individual entrepreneurs to open businesses on their reservations. So ONABEN's mission is to help individual Indians learn to draft business plans that are fundable by a bank, that could perhaps be given a loan and then we used to teach classes, in fact a year-long class we taught on how to operate your business, accounting, management, employment, all sorts of issues. But ONABEN took these statistics for Oregon and you can already see the stats. So in Oregon as of 1992, white Oregonians owned a business per 1,000 people at the rate of 81. 81 Oregon...white Oregonians owned their private business. Look at where American Indians were and I don't know how much that number has changed even though these statistics are pretty old. We have enormous room to improve in creating economies on our reservation and to encourage entrepreneurial activities. These are statements from ONABEN and this is the effect of poverty on Indian Country so I guess...I should have worded these I guess in the negative. So poverty causes education, economic, social and health issues; it injures community cohesion. As we know, if our people have to leave the reservation to go to school, if our people have to leave the reservation to live, to find adequate housing and jobs, that's what we call the brain drain, isn't it? That's assets, those are positive benefits we need on the reservation, but because of the lack of certain services and opportunities on the reservation they have to go elsewhere so that hurts community cohesion. If the parents have to leave to work or to be educated, that hurts family stability. Ultimately it hurts many things that we do care about.

So here's what ONABEN says are the benefits. Earned income: there's pride from earning and supporting yourself. There's pride from being able to buy your kids that toy they'd like to have, right? Support them and feed them. We already talked about the multiplier effect. The more we can keep money on the reservation circulating, even though it's only one dollar folks, what we mean by the multiplier is that it increases the effect of it. It's paid to the employee, the employee then goes to the local gas station and buys gas. Well, that pays the employees and the rent there and for the gasoline. Someone then goes to the local grocery store. That's paying employees and profit for everyone. So as long as we can keep that dollar in Indian Country, that's the goal of every community in the United States, capture those dollars, make the multiplier effect continue.

So ONABEN, like I say, tribally run organization, our board was made up of tribal representatives appointed by the tribal councils and then a few of us were Willamette Valley representatives. So I was the Willamette Valley representative. It's not anti-Indian to own your own business and I've already hammered on that point I think. That's what my chapter two is about. We all ran our own businesses, didn't we, whether it was family or individual, we engaged in economic activity to support ourselves and we were proud of that. So I think that's an ethos that we need to reinforce that that's cultural. Being poor is not cultural. Do you know of any tribal community that wants to be poor? Do any of us have a culture that said we had to be poor? I'm unaware of one, so we need to ban that idea from our mind.

ONABEN says, "˜We all benefit from a quality of business ownership in Indian Country.' Now I'm not going to spend much time talking about the Harvard Project because we have those representatives here and you've heard that so these three points: Being involved in economics or tribal government thinking of developing an economy is not somehow anti-sovereign. Even if you're thinking about helping develop private businesses. Yes, that's a business the tribal government might not be in control of, but all of these decisions are based on sovereignty and help support sovereignty because if we have an economy in Indian Country, again, a more sustainable reservation, a place where our people can live if they choose to and it contributes to and helps strengthen tribal government. Our institutions matter. The court system you just heard about. Without the laws, without a fair court that will protect property rights, contractual rights, what entrepreneur is going to open a business in your tribal community?

I mention in my book...I already told you about some Natives here in this state that chose to open their business in Phoenix because there were things they were concerned about about being on the reservation. So if there are governing principles or if our own institutions are somehow slowing business down or injuring business or if we have a court system that's not fair, no entrepreneur is going to invest their human capital -- their time and expertise and experience -- or their physical capital -- their money, materials they own, tools they own, etc. They just will not operate in Indian Country if they're afraid that their rights that they've worked for will not be protected. So these are governance issues, and culture matters the Harvard Project has shown with study after study after study. A comment that I just made in Bozeman, we had a conference this past weekend of economists in Bozeman and I'm not an economist so I mostly sit there and listen, but...and now I totally forgot where I was going. Oh, the comment I made is, "˜You probably would not open a hog farm in Israel, would you?' I don't pretend to be an expert on Judaism, but I don't think pork is a big seller in Jewish communities. So there are reservations where certain jobs or industries won't be supported. So an intelligent investor is going to research that topic and going to go, "˜I can't open Business X on Reservation Y. It's crazy. It'd be like opening a hog farm in Israel.'

So let's see what's next and let's...this is what I've been talking about. Here again, I'm borrowing from Harvard and if I get the facts wrong, tell me, Steve. But I think their studies have proven that a tribe that separates the operation of a tribal business, if they separate it from political decisions and from the tribal council, if they get an experienced board of directors that knows business and operates that business, there's a 400 percent greater chance that that business can be profitable. Tribal governments can't afford to run businesses that aren't profitable. That's not sustainable and I'm talking about sustainability.

Also, the Harvard Project shows that a tribe that has a court system and a dispute resolution system that is deemed to be fair, that is not tainted by political influence, will have a five percent better employment rate on the reservation than another tribe without that. Steve gave that comment -- you won't remember this, but I do -- in 1994, at a conference in Utah, you made that statement and I came up to him afterwards and I go, "˜How can you prove that?' He slapped me around a little bit. So I've been nice to him ever since. We know what the obstacles are. I talk about them in the book. Maybe we can talk about them a bit, but I want to close with some of these points.

Does your tribal government -- and boy, I'd really like you to think about this -- are you as a policy engaging in buying from your own Indian entrepreneurs on your own reservation? Now I have heard the executive director of the National Indian Gaming Association and he says, "˜We know tribal casinos are not utilizing enough Native entrepreneurs.' That's a $27 billion-a-year industry. Where are the tribal casinos buying their laundry services, their janitorial services, their paper towels? Are we buying these from Phoenix and Tucson businesses? We're hurting ourselves then, aren't we? We're spending our own money outside our community. Well, that's not very -- how dare I say -- that's not the best strategy. So I want to advocate, I was glad also to hear the judge mention nepotism because this was discussed at this conference I was at at Bozeman. Nepotism is a bad word out in the American economy, but we do work with our bands and families and extended families and we are related to practically everyone. How can you not be related to everyone on a community of only a couple thousand people? At my tribe, practically everyone has my mom's maiden name. The last name 'Captain' is the primary name at my tribe. So I'm related to practically everyone. So you can't avoid nepotism in the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, but I am so much advocating that we keep our money in our reservation.

Is the tribal government being a client of tribal entrepreneurial businesses? If you're not, you're spending your money on non-Indian owned businesses at some far distance from your own community and you are -- I don't know how strongly to say this -- but that's hurting our own communities, isn't it? So Buy Indian acts, I am advocating that tribes adopt a "˜Buy Indian' act, perhaps even designate a specific amount of the tribal budget to be spent on tribally owned -- not tribally owned -- individual Indian-owned businesses or even in tribally owned businesses. Let's keep the money in our communities. So let me show you the federal "˜Buy Indian' act. It's a joke. The current version was drafted in 1910, so please ignore that top one but this was the direction of Congress in 1910 that the Secretary of Interior in acquiring goods and labor for Indian Affairs that he or she try to buy Indian-owned goods and labor. But look, it's not mandatory. It's about as discretionary as it can get. It even has the word discretion. "˜As far as may be the discretion of the Secretary of the Interior.' So the Buy Indian Act has hardly been used. There are some federal lawsuits in which an individual Indian business owner has sued the Secretary saying, "˜I was fully capable of doing Job X, I applied for it, you didn't hire me.' The federal courts go, "˜You lose that case because the Secretary can do whatever they want.' So I'm advocating that tribes try to get Congress to make this law a little more powerful.

An example is in the Department of Defense budget. The Department of Defense is required to spend five percent on minority- and women-owned businesses and that five percent set-aside has led to several tribes creating -- I think Salish Kootenai is one of them -- making products for the military and has helped tribes enormously, a few tribes. So if we had some sort of requirement that the Secretary spend at least five percent, if tribal government said, "˜We will spend five percent of our budget on Indian-owned business,' what will Indian entrepreneurs do? What does an entrepreneur do? What is an entrepreneur? They see an opportunity, they think, "˜I can do that. I'll take the risk.' So if tribal governments were committed to spending money in Indian Country, I think entrepreneurs will see that and follow that."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"I agree with your point. However, I've seen in the past where you have a tribal member who'll throw up a shingle and say, "˜I do this now,' and it turns into a pass-through. We try to at Choctaw and define Indian preference in regards to buying services, to say that you must have 51-percent ownership in your business; you must show years of business interactions. And so that's one of the challenges I know that across Indian Country some people face, because then all you're doing as a tribal member setting something up to get maybe $25,000 out of the $1.5 million furniture contract that was set aside for the building, and so that's one of the things I think we really need to focus in on what is true Indian entrepreneurialism and true Indian business."

Robert Miller:

"You're exactly right on that. Now did you say that your tribe has a statute on this or some kind of regulations?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:


Robert Miller:

"I would love to see that. So you're Mississippi Choctaw or Oklahoma?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Mississippi Choctaw."

Robert Miller:

"Okay, great."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"My brother is Oklahoma Choctaw down the way there."

Robert Miller:

"They're close to us. Yes, sir."

Audience member:

"Thank you, Professor Miller. So I had a question. My question basically surrounds entrepreneurship. You sort of touched upon a definition of it. Social entrepreneurship, social enterprise, and I'm wondering what your thoughts are on that concept, on that model with respect to having put together any social enterprise on a reservation where one is working with both profit and non-profit ability hybrid model using some type of federal funding and building on a revenue component to that set up because that's something that I'm tinkering with along with some folks up in Navajo, that western part of Navajo. That's what we're looking at and I'm wondering what your thoughts are on that."

Robert Miller:

"Okay, well, that's almost a new idea to me. So you might have to explain it a little more, but an organization that has a social welfare...objective."

Audience member:

"Objective. A social objective, a social impact on one hand; on the other hand, have a revenue side so that you built it a hybrid model. So basically you're addressing two things at one time. So if that's quite successful, I know a lot of organizations are going in that direction, and one of the great examples is right there in Phoenix in Maricopa County with the school districts. That's something that they did and I'm wondering if that would be something that tribes can perhaps pursue."

Robert Miller:

"Well, I am absolutely for anything that brings any job to Indian Country practically and anything that can produce some income that perhaps might be spent on a reservation. So an organization like you're saying, sort of has a mixed agenda, right? They're engaged in social welfare activity. So I know there's an organization at Navajo I believe that's working on traditional foods, traditional crops. So in one sense I guess you could call that a social welfare idea -- let's bring some tradition back -- but if that's producing crops and jobs that then will be on the reservation, man, I applaud that. And we always like to bring federal dollars to the reservation, don't we? But then we've got to capture those dollars and we want to keep them there as long as possible."

Joan Timeche:

"If I can also add, on my reservation we've long's called the Hopi Foundation. It started out as a 501(c)(3) and it was really designed by former tribal employees that were frustrated with the government because they were not able to...the government was not acting in a speedy process in terms of applying for grants and being able to meet social needs. So they first started out providing social services. They have spun off a number of non-profits and a number of for-profits and they're all in different areas. One of them deals with international victims and it's actually based here in Tucson. It's a non-profit, but it's a spinoff of this overall, this Hopi Foundation about helping...and then we have, out of it came a solar energy project because it was a social program, the first to introduce photovoltaics because we have a number of villages out on Hopi who by choice did not have electricity so they were trying to introduce alternative energy options to them. So it started out as a non-profit and then later on merged, spun off as a for-profit so that existed and out of it came our Education Endowment Fund, which then became a whole separate entity. So there are models out there that can work."

Robert Miller:

"Well, and let me just add to that, while you're moving the microphone. In my book, I advocate for a mix of businesses, for a diverse economy. I think the strongest economy is one that is diverse. So there's no, just because I'm talking about entrepreneurship or ONABEN's talking about entrepreneurship, I'm not somehow anti-tribal government business or then anti this social welfare arena. Economic development can come in many ways and she gave an example and so did you, sir, of what sort of a social welfare agenda, but can lead to jobs and money on the reservation. So I'm advocating for as diverse of an economy as we can get. We realize some tribes are in such rural areas that the economy they're going to be able to develop, the opportunities are very slim. We know American rural areas are the poorest parts of the United States just because of the lack of infrastructure, highways, internet, telephones, water, and we know that tribes in rural areas face those issues. But I am advocating for the development of as much of an economy, public, private, tribal, non-Indian investors, Indian investors, etc. Yes, ma'am."

Audience member:

"Well, to further touch on what he was talking about, where I work and where I live, I live in 'ag central,' I'm from Nebraska. I work at Little Priest Tribal College and right now I'm the USDA grant coordinator and what I do is I have obtained this money and what we are doing in my program, we're going through our last year's funding, but I have... we are a hybrid. I function off a grant that's for community sustainability through agricultural and economic development. We are taking our food sovereignty and we're taking our seed sovereignty and we are building on that. And I'm able to employ approximately 40 tribal members seasonally and we teach people how to can, and we have a Farmer's Market, and we're expanding on that and we're going to be able to operate the next couple of years off the monies that we've made via our federal monies that we were awarded. But food sovereignty is a really big movement in Indian Country right now. Seed sovereignty is a really big thing and I really encourage other tribes to expand on that. It's really important because it is a social problem because so many of our communities are fighting diabetes, thyroid problems, all these health issues and it's because of the genetically modified foods that we're eating. It's so important that we stick to our Indigenous diets. And I'm from the Omaha people, I'm also a Burns Paiute too, and we have an Indigenous diet that's really important. Back home we have ceremonial corn, but we have corn to eat every day too and it's really important to embrace that, grow it, teach your kids how to grow it. There are ceremonies that hold on to those things, do it and teach the people. And then if you can, you can build a hybrid on it. Right now we have an apple orchard. We have expanded on that apple orchard. It's been really awesome. It's really exciting. It's really a big thing for me. If you guys want to know anymore about it, I'd be more than happy to share information about it. But we have, we've developed a hybrid program. We're very successful. Like I said, we're going to be able to operate the next couple of years without federal dollars because of the revenue we've brought in because of our product. And organic food market is huge right now. They love Indian food."

Robert Miller:

"Did you say you work for the Department of Agriculture?"

Audience Member:

"Yes. Well, I'm a USDA grant coordinator and I'm working...I'm collaborating a lot with the USDA and I work with the Little Priest Tribal College."

Robert Miller:

"Well, you'll have to come on February 28th to our conference because the Undersecretary for the Department of Agriculture, Patrice Kunesh, is going to speak. She wants to advocate how much the Department of Agriculture has available for tribes. Tribes are just thinking of the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs], and the Department of Agriculture in the areas you're already talking about has so much more as far as money and funding than the BIA has. It's incredible. So she's coming to Phoenix to talk about that issue on February 28th. And for food sovereignty, it's interesting she should mention that because a Native woman who I think is the first dean of a law school in the United States, Stacy Leeds, is the dean. She's Cherokee and she's the dean at University of Arkansas and they just started a food sovereignty clinic. I think that's the right word or at least program. So she's coming to our conference to talk about food sovereignty, so exactly what you're talking about. And then what she said ties in with what your question was sir, that here's sort of a social welfare, I guess, developing our Native foods again and bringing them back. That doesn't necessarily sound so economic, does it, but what an economic and cultural benefit that it has. So this is a wonderful example of the synergy of mixing these ideas and goals and so economic development's not hurting culture, we can use it to support culture."

Stephen Cornell:

"We've got a question right here."

Arlene Templer:

"I'm happy to hear you say to support the Buy Indian acts. I'm Arlene Templer from Salish Kootenai Tribes and under my department I have a gas station, convenience store, grocery store, laundromat, and it costs me more to run an Indian-owned business. I can't compete with Town Pump, and so what I have to do is sell it to the tribe's membership that this gas station provides work experience placements, it also provides revenue to the transportation system throughout the reservation because I have to charge between almost 10 cents more a gallon for gas. I can't compete with Town Pump so we have to support each other until we can get there and the Buy American act can help with that."

Robert Miller:

"Excellent. Next time I'm at Flathead I'll come to your gas station. That's what we talk about you keeping Indian money in the Indian community. Let me expand that just one step further. Let's not think just about our reservation, but a perfect example in the State of Washington. The Cowlitz Tribe, a brand-new recognized tribe wants to do gaming. So instead of turning to some Vegas company, which as you know many, many, many tribes have partnered with Harrah's and those Vegas companies, but the Cowlitz Tribe in Oregon partnered Washington, excuse me, partnered with the Mohegan Tribe from Connecticut. Gosh! So in one sense that's keeping our dollar within the Indian national community, isn't it? So I really enjoyed seeing some tribes working on things together. Another example from Oregon, the Grand Ronde Tribe and the Siletz Tribe are working together to develop lands that used to belong to the federal government and the Chemawa Indian School and they now have received those lands through various federal programs. So these two tribes, instead of then competing and fighting each other over who gets to develop it, they're working together. I see that again as keeping money in our Indian community."

Stephen Cornell:

"Mr. Henry?"

Audience member:

"I'm on the tribal council and it's hard for entrepreneurs sometimes to go through tribal council I think. Comes up with a great, great project and then after that the tribe kind of just shuts them down after that. But then, is there a way for the tribal member to go through, if they have BIA, if they have Section 17 from BIA to where it helps the tribal member and the tribal council sets or adjust the code for the development for a tribal member and then instead they don't have to go through the tribal council, but go through Section 17 with the federal government, which too allows the reservation development to where if those two can work together to where instead of the tribal member for entrepreneurship goes straight through...go to the tribal council, but instead just follows the Section 17 in corporation building? Have you ever come across something like that?"

Robert Miller:

"Yes. Incorporation is a big issue, folks, and this is part of the law building that the tribal court panel was talking about, but that I'm talking about that many tribal governments do not have an incorporation code. [Okay, we have two minutes. That's in total? You showed me two minutes, two minutes ago. Did you give me two more minutes? Oh, five okay. I didn't see it. So let's see, where was I going?] Incorporating, for a Native person to incorporate their corporation pursuant to their own tribe's governmental code, that's an exercise of inherent sovereignty. So there are three ways to form corporations in Indian Country. Under state law, which is probably the least beneficial, that exposes you to state regulations, state taxation. Section 17 that you mentioned, which to my knowledge is only available for tribal governments. My own government created a Section 17 about a decade ago. I think there's a fairly small number of Section 17 corporations because tribes haven't really seen that the way to go. But to incorporate under your own inherent law, and if you have the code that governs and taxes businesses, then people know what the landscape of the law is. So I advocate for tribes to have corporation codes and for tribal citizens to incorporate under the inherent authority of their own tribe. Now you are then subject, however to the tribal law. So that's where we get back to effective institutions. Is the tribal court fair, does the tribal court have experience in interpreting contract and business law; have we appointed judges with that kind of experience? Those are the issues that are the institution business that the Harvard Project has showed...studied and has shown is so important. So you raise a very good issue that needs to be worked out and I'm not sure how many tribes have enacted their own corporate codes. Probably not too many, but it certainly sounds like the way for tribal entrepreneurs to incorporate."

Stephen Cornell:

"Can I just add to that, Bob? In regard to your question, from the sound of what you said, you may be in a situation where starting a business then runs afoul of council interference or obstacles and this is exact...Bob is exactly right. This is where these institutional issues become critical -- that you've got in place a set of laws that facility instead of hindering economic development. All the things Bob talked about trying to build an economy, that can be brought to a halt by a set of governing institutions that burden the entrepreneur so much that they run to Phoenix or Flagstaff to set up their business. So if what you're encountering is, "˜Gee, we can't get a business going because we have to go through council and it's too involved and it takes too long and the politics get into it and all the rest of that,' you are a prime candidate for rethinking some of that governing structure so that you can begin to support entrepreneurship on your rez."

Related Resources

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ONABEN: A Native American Business and Entrepreneurial Network

Founded by a consortium of Native nations in the Pacific Northwest, ONABEN's mission is to increase self-reliance by promoting the development of tribal-citizen-owned small businesses and the diversification of reservation economies. ONABEN's programs provide financial counseling, business…


Former Executive Director of ONABEN Tom Hampson presents an overview of the organization's work to the Honoring Nations Board of Governors in conjunction with the 2005 Honoring Nations Awards.