The Hoover Institution hosted a virtual policy boot camp August 10–13 for aspiring entrepreneurs and future tribal leaders from various American Indian nations.

The inaugural boot camp was spearheaded by the John and Jean De Nault Senior Fellow Terry Anderson as part of Renewing Indigenous Economies, a Hoover-led project that applies data-driven research to examinations of how Native Americans can reclaim the freedom and self-reliance they enjoyed in the precolonial era.

The highly selective program featured undergraduate and graduate students originating from tribes spanning North and South America and representing a wide breadth of academic study and interests.

The three-day seminar comprised lectures about the economic, political, and legal characteristics of Indian reservations and tribal relationships with local, state, and national governments. Each lecture was followed by a breakout discussion in which the students could talk about how to apply these concepts to life in their respective nations.

“Simply getting access to share the same space as scholars who have a variety of knowledge bases and experiences—and [who] also share a common commitment and investment to the next generation of Native leaders—is exactly what I needed during these very difficult times,” one of the participating students said.  

Anderson gave the first presentation, about the evolution of tribal economies from precolonial times to the present. He emphasized that this historical study was crucial to understanding the vibrancy that characterized indigenous economies.

“They didn’t just survive, they thrived,” Anderson said.

He explained how the indigenous peoples effectively cultivated natural resources, traded surpluses of goods across the continent, and used profits they attained to reinvest in their respective tribal economies.

In the postcolonial era, Anderson argued, the dislocation and destruction of indigenous societies, especially through policies of the US government, resulted in widespread poverty and economic dependence of tribal citizens.

Anderson underlined that the success of indigenous economies rests on the principles of property ownership and economic self-sufficiency. He explained how individual tribal members have thrived as sole owners of “fee simple” lands, while certain tribes, those that have attained full control of forest lands from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, have effectively managed that land, reaped significant profits, and provided jobs for other tribal members.

Anderson maintained that restoring tribal rule of law is also central to the creation of a thriving economic climate. He said that tribes need to legally reclaim valuable natural resources, clarify their jurisdiction over such economic activities as gaming, and enforce the sanctity of contracts in order to secure consistent investment from firms outside their reservation lands.

The second presentation was given by Robert Miller, professor of law at Arizona State University, about how to create private-sector economies and sustainable communities in Indian country.

Miller, an expert on federal Indian law and a member of the Eastern Shawnee tribe, outlined some of the impediments to economic development in Indian country, including a “brain drain” caused by migration of its members who pursue job opportunities off the reservation and the inability to use land held in trust by the federal government as collateral on loans.

Miller argued that in order to protect sovereignty and maintain social cohesion, Indian-owned firms must operate primarily within their own communities and promote economic opportunity for fellow tribal members. He discussed the importance of developing human resources though education in entrepreneurship and financial literacy, as well as creating a thriving private sector that would provide conditions for the proliferation of advanced ideas and innovations.

“Think about what it takes for a society to support a Galileo or an Einstein or Jonas Salk,” Miller explained. “If that person is grubbing on a minimum-wage job to support their family, then they are not thinking about E = mc2 or the polio vaccine.”

Miller also stressed the importance of physical infrastructure within tribal lands. While most citizens and firms within the United States enjoy access to high-speed internet, Miller said, this was not the case on many reservations, where internet connectivity is worse than in some third-world countries. 

The final session, which offered practical lessons about tribal business and entrepreneurship, was presented by Daniel Stewart, a member of the Spokane tribe and professor of entrepreneurship at Gonzaga University; and Deanna Kennedy, a member of the Cherokee Nation and associate professor of business at the University of Washington–Bothell.

Stewart and Kennedy demonstrated how indigenous-owned businesses can provide value to customers based on their access to natural resources and workers with technical skills; described how firms can achieve “economies of scale”; and outlined how to keep money circulating within respective nations through judicious management of their supply chains for goods and services.

Stewart explained that in his and Kennedy’s research, they found that cultural identity was a strong basis, instead of a barrier, for many tribal business models. He provided the example of Sister Sky, a company founded by members of the Spokane tribe that sources ancestral recipes for skin and hair products.

“What we found was that good leaders in Indian country stayed tried-and-true to their Indian identity and they don’t waver,” Stewart said. “It wasn’t a story that culture was holding them back, but culture was actually making them stronger.”

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