April 22, 2019; Indian Country Today
Quick, name a group that employs over 700,000 people in rural America.
Did you guess the thousands of tribal-owned businesses in “Indian Country”? As Patrice Kunesh, who directs the Center for Indian Country Development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, writes in Indian Country Today, while many American Indian nations face intense poverty, that’s not the whole story. While income levels in American Indian communities remain far below US norms, conditions for many are improving.
As Kunesh explains:
Fueled in large part by tribal government gaming, incomes of American Indians on reservations are increasing. Indeed, they realized a 48 percent increase in real per capita income from 1990 to 2018 (from $9,650 to $14,355) compared to a nine percent increase for all Americans. During this time, casino revenue showed a marked increase from barely a billion in 1990 to $32.5 billion in 2018. Most of the revenue is spent away from the casino, demonstrating the significant spillover effect of reservation economies in supporting the local workforce and generating tax revenue.
Indian Country, Kunesh notes, comprises 573 self-governing nations that span more than 60 million mostly rural acres (93,750 square miles) throughout the US.
Kunesh is likely guilty of attributing the improvements in Indian Country too much to casino income and too little to the broader patterns of cultural rebuilding that economists often discount. Casino income, as we know, is spread unequally. Some American Indian nations benefit a lot; others, not at all. But as Kunesh points out, in places where casino revenue is sizable, the “per capita payments from casino revenues have had significant positive impacts” in addressing the social effects of poverty. Kunesh adds that “there’s some evidence that these payments have increased high school graduation rates by almost 40 percent, years of education by age 21 by over a year, decreased arrest rates, and children are more likely to vote as adults. In addition, American Indians in these high casino-revenue nations “have decreased rates of smoking, heavy drinking, and obesity.”
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“Indian Country as a whole is growing, with more than five million American Indians and Alaska Natives, making up almost two percent of the population (2.9 million identify as solely American Indian or Alaska Native, and another 2.3 million identified as multiracial),” Kunesh explains. He adds that the Native population climbed 1.1 million, or 26.7 percent between 2000 and 2010, far more than the national population rise of 9.7 percent.
Kunesh goes further to suggest that Indian Country can be an economic driver for rural America as a whole. As Kunesh explains:
Why? First, reservations are inherent homelands for American Indians, creating intergenerational ties to the land and thus a rooted population that can help temper the general depopulation trend. Second, reservations have important economic strengths to offer rural America, including the ability to attract tourist dollars (from casinos but also amenities and culture), agriculture and natural resources (minerals, forests, water), and unique access to federal funding sources (e.g., Indian Health Service facilities, which could become rural health anchor institutions, United States Department of Housing and Urban Development housing loans, and a slew of United States Department of Agriculture rural utility and community facilities programs).
Kunesh adds that many American Indian nations are making a difference in their communities. For example, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, Kunesh notes, “have established a community bank, created several successful tech-related businesses, and have assumed ownership of Séliš Ksanka Ql’ispé Dam (formerly known as Kerr Dam), the regional hydroelectric power plant.”
“The White Mountain Apache Tribe in Arizona, Kenush adds, “operates a world-class wildlife program and professionally manages a vast forest system.”
In short, Kunesh contends, American Indian nations “are a significant part of the economic geography of rural America, and they have opportunities to become even more important force going forward.”—Steve Dubb