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 remains significantly behind the development of the general population in the U.S. And, as the National Community Reinvestment Coalition notes, estimates of economic statistics for tribal communities vary widely due to a continuous lack of comprehensive data collection.
World Population Review estimates the average poverty rate for U.S. tribal communities in 2022 to be roughly 23%, compared to the 2021 general population poverty rate of 11.6% (according to U.S. Census Bureau data). Unemployment rate disparities have shifted constantly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. As a snapshot, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports unemployment among tribal communities was at 7.9% in December 2021, compared to 3.9% 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. Initiatives to reform the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) are ongoing with a targeted budget supported by multiple national investments. Reforms are focused on improving standards of quality, accessible education and giving tribal communities more control over their schools.
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 numerous economic development initiatives in recent years, including federal investment in food assistance, health services, housing and broadband access. 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.
For example, the renewable and non-renewable energy resources on Indian land have experienced a boost in assistance from the federal government. The U.S. government has invested substantially in improvements in these areas for tribal communities through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 as well as subsequent acts and agreements.
Additionally, 2022 saw billions invested in new and existing tribal broadband development and grant programs. This reflects the current understanding that high-speed internet access is a necessary utility and a fundamental component of modern-day infrastructure. Assistance in these and other areas 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) Office of Native American Affairs has worked to connect Native-owned small businesses with contracting opportunities in an effort to spur growth.
The SBA provides numerous resources including Entrepreneurship Empowerment Workshops targeted toward Native American entrepreneurs and small business owners who wish to receive 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 of Oklahoma has Career Development programs designed to assist Choctaw tribal members with career counseling, employment training and job placement. For aspiring entrepreneurs, Choctaw Small Business Development supports potential business owners from the Choctaw community with entrepreneurship training, individualized coaching, access to business assistance programs and more.
Numerous other initiatives among tribes in Oklahoma have driven substantial economic growth for tribal communities as well as the state as a whole. According to findings from a study sponsored through the Oklahoma Tribal Finance Consortium, the total economic impact of tribes in Oklahoma in 2019 was roughly $15.6 billion, representing an increase of $2.6 billion between 2017 and 2019 alone. Oklahoma tribes also supported over 113,000 jobs that year.
According to Neal McCaleb, Chickasaw Nation Ambassador to the United States, “This study shows just how important tribes are to Oklahoma’s economy.”
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 initiative in generating ideas for tribal economic development and maintain ownership and control of programs through the planning, implementation and assessment stages.
Success in managing the many stages of economic development initiatives relies on advanced business and leadership skills. Rigorous study in Southeastern Oklahoma State University’s online Master of Business Administration with a Concentration in Native American Leadership can help tribal leaders develop these skills while focusing on issues and opportunities specific to their communities.
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, land and other resources, tribal communities have the opportunity to take greater ownership of their economic development and drive change in improving their quality of life.