Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Economic Development Is Not Limited to Gaming!

Passed in 1988, Public Law 100-497 streamlined the authorization for federally-recognized tribes to operate gaming establishments - i.e. casinos. The spirit behind the legislation was to allow American Indian tribes an opportunity at economic development, in order to combat the pervasive poverty that afflicts reservations across the country.

Unfortunately, the result in many cases has not been one of economic development, but rather a scenario of in-fighting, fraud, embezzlement, substance abuse, and even tragedy, due to mismanaged - or often unmanaged - economic growth. This is not because tribes are irresponsible - at least not any more irresponsible than the federal government that regulates them - or that Indians are bad people or have any predisposition to crime or substance abuse, it's just the logical conclusion to an ill-conceived development plan. There is a notable difference between economic growth and economic development.

You can't take a group of people who are living in poverty and struggling with such powerful spiritual issues as substance abuse, violence, depression, and trauma and just hand them money and say, "Okay, now everything is better so go live well." It doesn't work that way. People, not just American Indians but any people, need support, guidance and knowledge in order to use their available resources well. If you withhold that support, guidance and knowledge, as the federal government has continuously done with American Indians, then you can't expect a great deal of success to come from your development plan.

In the end, the tribes that will develop themselves successfully will be the ones who do not put all of their eggs in the basket that is Indian gaming. Many tribes are realizing this and are reaching into actual economic development projects. For example, last month NPR reported a story on the Lower Brule Sioux tribe of South Dakota. This tribe purchased a Wall Street investment firm after recognizing that its casino would likely never meet the economic development needs of its community.

Other tribes have ventured into different businesses and other development opportunities, including colleges, hotels, golf courses, spas, restaurants, and many others. Examples include:
In the future, we will hopefully see even more tribal development enterprises. It will be years, maybe even generations, however, before we see the negative impact that mismanaged economic growth has had on American Indians become a thing of the past. The best case scenario is that American Indian people learn from our current experience and use the lessons to guide future development in more positive and beneficial directions.