Native American economy drives rural communities : NPR

April 13, 2022

Montana Economy

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Very well. We will now take a moment to review the state of the Native American economy. A new series airing on the Indian Country Today website has revealed that tribal businesses and governments are often the biggest economic contributors to their regions, and this is especially true in rural areas. From health care to green energy, the profile of the Indigenous economy goes far beyond casinos and fossil fuels. Mark Trahant writes for Indian Country Today and joins us now. Welcome.

MARC TRAHANT: Thank you. Glad to be here.

CHANG: Glad to have you. So, you said, for a fun scroll, readers should check out Google Tribes and Largest Employer. Can you just tell us – what would we find if we actually typed this into Google?

TRAHANT: Well, there are over 500 tribes in many parts of the country. If you typed in Google – choose a tribe and choose the largest employer, it would show up. If it wasn’t the first, it would be the second or third. Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Northwest Montana, Oneida Nation in Oneida and Madison Counties in Wisconsin, Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma, Osage Tribe of Oklahoma. Really, you could look at the list. Even in Southern California, where you have major casino operations in those areas, the tribes are sometimes the biggest employer.

CHANG: It’s so interesting. And can you explain how, for example, a healthy tribal economy can significantly affect neighboring communities?

TRAHANT: Well, I think the first path is employment. It just creates jobs that didn’t exist ten years ago. And one of the things that we saw during the pandemic that was really interesting was that a lot of the big tribal employers tried to keep people as long as possible. Not everyone, of course, but in many cases they tried to keep people working even when casino operations were shut down, and I think that was really remarkable.

CHANG: Well, finally, what size are we talking about? Like, how big is the tribal economy if you were to look across all the tribes in the continental United States?

TRAHANT: That’s a really tough question, but I think by the measure on the back of the envelope, we’re looking at at least $80 billion. And to give you an example of how that fits in, Vermont is about $37 billion.

CHANG: Wow. Okay, so more than double Vermont’s GDP.

TRAHANT: That’s true.

CHANG: Wow. So can you talk about some of the new industries that are driving some of the growth of tribal economies – like, I mentioned healthcare and green energy. Tell us more about it.

TRAHANT: Well, health care is a great example because so many people think of the Indian Health Service as a federal government operation. And it continues to exist, but 60% of the system is now managed by tribes or associations, and these are the ones that have been particularly innovative. In Alaska, for example, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and the Alaska Native Medical Center are extraordinarily innovative. They do everything from dental health therapy, which is a mid-level practice in the village, to telemedicine and have found new ways to provide health care at a significantly lower cost than other institutions.

CHANG: Finally, I want to talk about a phrase you use. You describe the tribal economy as a “stealth economy”. What did you mean by that? For example, do you think that at the federal level, the numbers inside this economy are just not being tracked enough?

TRAHANT: Yeah. Well, I think in general we need to do a better job of tracking data on Indian country and its economic contributions. This year alone, the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking unemployment, which is huge.

CHANG: You mean unemployment among the tribes?

TRAHANT: In tribal communities – on reservations, yes. And it’s extraordinary because you’ve seen stories in the media over the last 20 years of 50%, 80% unemployment on reservations. And it turns out that the actual measurement is around 37%, which is still approximate…

Chang: Yeah.

TRAHANT: …But it’s not at all close to what people report. So I think it’s really essential to have accurate and regular measurement to determine the impact of these savings. And when you think about it, tribes – like states – are in the Constitution. And as constitutional governments, having that record seems essential to me.

Chang: Absolutely.

It’s Mark Trahant, a reporter for Indian Country Today. Thank you very much for joining us today.

TRAHANT: Oh, that was fun.


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