Tribal communities have seen a great deal of economic growth over the past several decades. Unemployment has declined, access to education has increased and infrastructure has improved across tribal communities in large percentages. However, tribal economic development still remains significantly behind the development of the general population in the U.S. The average poverty rate for tribal communities from 2006 to 2010 was 30 percent, 16 percentage points higher than the U.S. national average. Unemployment among tribal communities was at 15 percent, compared to less than 8 percent across the U.S.
In order for tribal communities to see continued economic development as well as improvement in citizens’ quality of life, tribal governments must work with the federal government on tribal economy programs. Tribal leaders can advocate for increased support from the national government while at the same time pushing for tribe-led initiatives to develop the economy from the ground up. In this way, tribal economic development can see continued improvements in access to quality education, higher standards of living and housing, better employment opportunities and stronger infrastructure — including roads, water, electricity and telecommunications.
Economic development begins with education. When the access to quality education increases in a community, the community will feel the effects in its economy for years to come. In recent years, the White House has promoted initiatives to reform the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), giving tribal communities more control over their schools.
The BIE works with tribal governments to provide a world-class education to tribal students, including assistance in the forms of financial resources, teacher training, organizational management and leadership skill development. As local school administration and teaching staff improve their administrative and instructional skills, tribal students receive a better education. Likewise, as more tribal students at the elementary and secondary level excel in the classroom, they become better equipped for college, which can increase the overall education level in their communities.
Tribal communities have also seen economic initiatives from the White House in recent years, including federal spending for food assistance, health services and housing. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has worked to remove regulatory barriers standing in the way of infrastructure and energy development on Indian lands. The BIA has also worked to increase tribal governance of Indian land development for both businesses and families.
In particular, the renewable and non-renewable energy resources on Indian land have experienced a boost in assistance from the federal government. The U.S. government is investing $500 million in improvements to tribal communities through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, including assistance to tribal economic development of renewable and non-renewable energy resources. This assistance will stimulate job creation and economic development among tribes.
Support for Small Businesses
Another way the federal government has partnered with tribal governments in economic development is through the support of small businesses. The Small Business Administration (SBA) has worked to connect Native-owned small businesses with contracting opportunities in an effort to spur growth. The SBA also hosts an Introduction to Entrepreneurship class in New Mexico targeted towards Native veterans who wish to receive entrepreneurship training and potential lending opportunities.
Initiatives Among Oklahoma’s Tribal Communities
Many economic development initiatives are specific to individual tribes. For instance, the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma has a Career Development Program designed to assist Choctaw students with career counseling, employment training and job placement. On an annual basis, the Career Development Program connects 2,000 Choctaw students with 300 employers, giving the tribal community a boost in employment. The program also includes the Native American Business Resource Center, which supports potential business owners from the Choctaw community with entrepreneurship training and individualized coaching.
Other initiatives among tribes in Oklahoma focus on the Cherokee and Muscogee (Creek) Nations. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides loans through the Intermediary Relending Program, which assists the Cherokee Nation with supporting small businesses in creating or saving jobs. The College of Muscogee Nation took part in the USDA’s Community Facility Tribal College Grant Initiative to acquire the finances for a new library, cafeteria and fitness center. By building up small businesses and institutions of higher learning, tribal communities can develop their economies for the long term.
Importance of Tribal Involvement
The success of economic and educational initiatives among tribal communities hinges upon tribal involvement at every stage. Tribal leaders must take the lead in generating ideas for tribal economic development and then maintain ownership of the programs through the planning, implementation and assessment stages. Assistance and support from the federal government are crucial components of developing tribal economies, and giving tribal economy and education continued priority is essential. With reforms in tribal control of schools and land, tribal communities have the opportunity to take greater ownership of their economic development and see a general improvement in quality of life.
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