Most of the world agrees that economic development is a good thing. Micro-loans, savings groups, Individual Development Accounts (IDAs), and financial literacy education are all excellent ways to help poverty-stricken communities out of the cycle of poverty and into a healthy economic and social situation. There are community development models that are working to revitalize entire communities.
Ultimately, economic and community development are ideas that are rooted in capitalism, and capitalism is rooted in the idea that people own property. These two concepts, capitalism and private property, are intertwined and often considered two sides of the same coin in Western economic systems.
When Europeans encountered Native Americans, the Native Americans recognized property rights related to food, hunting and gathering territories, crops, and seasonal home sites. The lands Native Americans hunted and lived on were considered tribal lands rather than individual lands. While there were some individual property rights exercised, the US government has, at various times, set up the “system” to work against Native America. We’ll look at this topic more in future blog posts.
Native Americans didn’t have a framework for the Western European concept of individualized land-ownership. It might then be difficult to understand that economic development could be a good thing for a culture that originally had a more tribal concept of land-ownership.
The truth is that economic development is a great idea. Here’s why:
1. The Yakama Nation operates under the same concept of land-ownership now. Native Americans always operated under private property concepts in areas outside of land ownership. There is now a very good understanding of land ownership among the Yakama and other Native American peoples.
2. We don’t have the luxury of academic debates. As high as 73% of the Yakama people are unemployed. That means 3 out of every 4 people live without a job on income from the Tribe and subsistence payments from the Federal Government. It is time for a new approach. As the CEO of the Oneida Nation of New York commented, “We had tried poverty for 200 years, so we decided to try something else.”
3. Native Americans are already embracing economic development efforts. There are many Native American owned and run businesses across Native America. With changes in the Federal government’s approach to working with Reservations starting in the 1970s, the Tribes have more control over funds granted to them and many are embracing the opportunities this provides.
4. Many might argue that accepting economic development efforts will injure Native American culture. Saying that Native Americans shouldn’t embrace economic development because of their cultural roots is simply another form of telling Native Americans what is good for them. The chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon stated, “We need to make it acceptable in Indian country to be in business; it’s not about rejecting culture, it builds sovereignty.”
5. Native Americans have several assets already that are completely untapped. Native America has many, many skilled craftsmen and artisans. There is a rich cultural heritage in Native America that is unknown and forgotten. The Yakama people have a respect for Elders that is significantly lacking across broader America and is something non-Native America can learn from.
6. New technology presents an unprecedented opportunity to give Native America access to a global marketplace. Through the internet, Native Americans now have access to a global marketplace rather than what were previously local marketplaces centered around the economically depressed Reservations.
Despite the differences in traditional Native American culture that have clashed with non-Native America, we think the best thing for the Yakama people right now is economic development to impact the level of income Yakama individuals can earn.
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