23-4 Summer 2012 “Investing in Education, Empowering Tribal Communities” Resource Guide

Volume 23, No. 4 - Summer 2012
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Native Economic Development Theory and Practice

Economic development can generally be defined as the policies which grow, support and maintain economic health in a given area.  Rather than focusing on increases in market productivity or GDP measures, this development focuses on the economic and social well being of a specific community.  These interventions involve community rule makers’ policies and codes as well as collective community consumer and business actions.  These quantitative and qualitative changes can involve development of human capital, job opportunities, critical infrastructure, regional competitiveness, environmental sustainability, social inclusion, health, safety, literacy, and any number of other initiatives. Ultimately, the key to understanding economic development is the direction of the flow of money.  Economic development increases the flow of outside money into a community, rather than recirculation of money within a community or exportation of community wealth and resources.

For Native nations specifically, economic development has been the standard by which many have measured their success.  It is the measurement by which Native citizens calibrate the balance between social well-being that feels true to tradition, and business acumen that reflects their Nation’s specific relationship to their environment. Well before the 1975 Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act which officially ushered in the era of self determination, Native nations struggled and often times succeeded in measuring up.  In the nearly 40 years since, the differences between Native nations who found economic success and those who did not has been the subject of much theorizing throughout Indian Country.

Here you will find resources culled to give a broad understanding of basic theories of Native economic development, as well as some suggestions for finding additional resources.  This is merely a sampling of the available literature and in no way represents all of the information.   Furthermore, the resources listed here generally focus on economic development theory specific to the United States, with some implications provided for First Nations communities in Canada.


Anderson, T.L. (1995). Sovereign nations or Indian reservations: An economic history of American Indians. San Francisco: Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy.

Directly addressing romanticism surrounding American Indian culture and traditional economics, Anderson provides evidence of Native property rights, contracts, and market exchange—all of which were disrupted by U.S. forced migration to reservations.  Anderson contends that much of the current poverty on reservations today is due to federal policies that deprive Indians of their traditional property rights and unnaturally impose political collective decision-making.

Ashley, J. S., & Hubbard, S. J. (2004). Negotiated sovereignty: Working to improve tribal-state relations. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Using positive and negative case studies, Ashley and Hubbard consider ways that tribal and state relations can be improved in the U.S. despite a long history of tension.  They advocate for greater understanding in the federal system of the role of tribal governments and recognition of Native nations as viable political entities with unique legal and political status.  Considering levels of cooperation, or lack thereof, on key policy areas such as law enforcement and water management, the authors propose an alternative approach designed to improve cooperative handling of issues for states and tribes.

Cornell, S. E., Curtis, C., Jorgensen, M., Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy (U.S.), & Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy. (2004). The concept of governance and its implications for First Nations. Tucson, AZ: Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management and Policy.

This is one in a series of articles commissioned by the British Columbia Regional Vice-Chief of the Assembly of First Nations to define governance and government as well as describe the critical role both play in human communities.  Cornell et al. examine the elements of effective self-governance and how self-governing systems are built.  To do so, they draw on distinctions between self-administration, sometimes mistaken for self-government, and genuine self-government.  Utilizing considerable research on both Native and First Nations communities, the authors also consider the implications for Aboriginal nations and federal governments. This work concludes with a discussion of the specific tasks facing First Nations and Canada in making Aboriginal self-government a reality.

Cornell, S. E., & Kalt, J. P. (1991). Where’s the glue?: Institutional bases of American Indian economic development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

Nearly 50 years of Native nations exercising substantial powers of self-government within the U.S. system has resulted in diverse efforts to overcome widespread poverty, with equally diverse outcomes.  In this article, Cornell and Kalt report on research into the sources of development success during the “take-off” stage of self-government.  They find little evidence to support the hypotheses that resource or human capital endowments hold keys to launching Native economies. Instead, tribal constitutional forms appear to be essential keys to development.  They conclude that development takes hold when tribal constitutions provide for separations of powers and when their structures match Indigenous norms of political legitimacy.

Cornell, S. E., Kalt, J. P., & Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. (1995). Successful economic development and heterogeneity of government form on American Indian reservations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

Twenty years after the Self-Determination Act, relatively successful tribes were distinguishable by 1) their stable political institutions’ success at implementing public decisions and 2) their use of modern form and powers similar to the form and powers of their pre-reservation tribal government.  While it is clear that tribal governance institutions are crucial to reservation economic development, there is a wide variety of institutional and constitutional forms among even successful reservations. The authors suggest that this reflects a process of “same problems, different solutions.” The “problems” include establishment of a rule of law, adoption of public policies of “free trade” with the non-Indian economy, and maintenance of a substantial degree of political stability. The “solutions” consist of institutional designs of tribal government, including their judicial, legislative, and executive functions. Cornell et al. examine the problem-solving capacities of tribal institutions among a number of tribes, paying particular attention to two economically successful and developing (non-gaming) reservations with strikingly different governmental systems that are compatible with the economic success of their respective nations.

Cornell, S. E., Kalt, J. P., Jorgensen, M., Spilde, K. A., Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy (U.S.), & Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy. (2005). Seizing the future: Why some Native nations do and others don’t. Tucson, AZ: Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, University of Arizona.

The nation-building approach to Native economic development emphasizes that both asserting the rights of self-rule and supporting such assertions with governing institutions, legitimate in the eyes of the people and efficient in their operation, are critical. Cornell et al. examine why some Native nations seize upon the nation-building strategy and take effective control of their futures while others do not.  They explain community foundational change as a phenomena that takes place when a people’s external and internal conditions interact with their interpretations of their situation, producing a new, shared “story” of what is possible and how it can be achieved—i.e., who can initiate change. The authors find that the keys to changing a community’s “story” include making proactive decisions to alter internal and external situations, acquiring concrete knowledge of the feasible, building on the community’s cultural assets, and exercising leadership—especially when educating the people in a new vision.

Cornell, S. E., Kalt, J. P., & University of California, Los Angeles. (1992). What can tribes do?: Strategies and institutions in American Indian economic development. Los Angeles: American Indian Studies Center, University of California, Los Angeles.

This work includes the often quoted chapter “Re-loading the dice: Improving the chances for economic development on American Indian reservations” wherein Cornell and Kalt consider how specific obstacles facing Native nations, roles of Native governance institutions, and support  of tribal governments can improve the chances of achieving self-determined development success.  Overall, this volume provides a good overview of the concepts, strategies and processes of Native nation-building theory.

Cornell, S. E., Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy (U.S.), & Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy. (2006). What makes First Nations enterprises successful?: Lessons from the Harvard Project. Tucson, AZ: Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy.

Drawing on extensive research carried out by the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development and the Native Nations Institute, the authors examine how the actions of Native nations can either undermine or strengthen their own enterprises. While many influences on business outcomes are beyond the control of the nations that own the businesses, Cornell et al. focus on five factors that Native nations can control, but sometimes ignore, in the effort to build successful, nation-owned businesses.  These factors include clarity about enterprise goals; effective management of the politics-business connection; the purpose, power, and composition of enterprise boards of directors; independent and reliable resolution of disputes; and the need to educate the community about enterprise goals and activity. Using real-world cases, they explore how actions in each of these areas can have a significant impact on business performance.

Edmunds, R. D. (2001). The new warriors: Native American leaders since 1900. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Edmunds provides a survey of Native leadership in the modern era, profiling Native men and women who have played a significant role in the affairs of their communities and nation over the course of the twentieth century.  For those interested in Indian Country economic development, this book shows the minds behind some of the economic success stories found in other texts.  Relevant profiles in this work include orator and Crow Reservation Superintendent Robert Yellowtail; U.S. Senators Charles Curtis and Ben Nighthorse Campbell; Howard Tommie, the champion of economic and cultural sovereignty for the Seminole Tribe of Florida; Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller; Pawnee activist and lawyer Walter Echo-Hawk; and Phillip Martin, a driving force behind the economic revitalization of the Mississippi Band of Choctaws.

The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. (2008). The state of the Native nations: Conditions under U.S. policies of self-determination. New York: Oxford University Press.

The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development brought together scholars and Native leaders to produce what is considered the most comprehensive and cohesive interdisciplinary study available on current conditions and trends in Indian Country. Broad in scope, this work covers issues ranging from tribal governance, land and natural resources, and economic and social development, to arts and culture, the large off-reservation Native population, and federal Indian policy. Beyond a mere report, several essays provide the personal perspectives of noted national Native leaders to provide context.

Hosmer, B. C., & O’Neill, C. M. (2004). Native pathways: American Indian culture and economic development in the twentieth century. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.

This work examines Native participation in the broader U.S. market, especially highlighting the adoption of capitalist strategies altered to suit Native cultural beliefs and practices. Hosmer and O’Neill include contributions from historians, anthropologists, and sociologists, offering different perspectives on the places where economic change and cultural identity in the twenty-first century meet in Native American communities.

Jorgensen, M. (2007). Rebuilding native nations: Strategies for governance and development. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

Jorgensen chronicles Native peoples’ reclamation of their right to govern themselves and to shape their futures in their own ways.  In a format which includes reporting, analysis and how-to-guidelines, the editor looks at the ways Native nations are  addressing severe social problems, building sustainable economies, and reinvigorating Indigenous cultures according to their own designs.  Produced by the Native Nations Institute and the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, this book discusses strategies for governance as well as community and economic development employed by American Indian nations and First Nations in Canada.  It also provides guidelines for creating new governance structures, rewriting constitutions, building justice systems, launching nation-owned enterprises, encouraging citizen entrepreneurs, developing new relationships with non-Native governments, and confronting the crippling legacies of colonialism.

Jorgensen, M., Taylor, J. B., & Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. (2000). What determines Indian economic success?: Evidence from tribal and individual Indian enterprises. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, Malcolm Weiner Center for Social Policy, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

Beginning from an understanding that poverty in Indian Country is not a problem of economics per se but instead a problem of institutions, particularly political institutions, Jorgensen et al. use data on Indian-owned enterprises to consider the core institutions of enterprise success — corporate governance.  They find that, overwhelmingly, Native enterprises that are subject to undue political influence — especially the influence of elected officials who serve as members of enterprise boards — frequently fail to thrive. Thus, enterprises without politically insulated corporate governance cannot generate ongoing profits to reinvest in the community or to sustain employment growth.  The authors go on to describe the institutional means of separating business from politics, even for Native nations committed to tribal ownership of significant portions of their economies.

Miller, R. J. (2012). Reservation “capitalism”: Economic development in Indian country. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Miller investigates the history and future of American Indian economic activities to explain why Native governments and reservation communities must create sustainable, privately- and tribally-owned businesses if reservation communities and cultures are to continue. Miller charts the shift from historically prosperous, vibrant societies sustained over hundreds or thousands of years (as most tribal communities were) to more poverty-stricken and socially-challenged communities.  He then points to the means for gradual, long-term change which can improve the standard of living and sustain tribal cultures. The book details strategies for establishing privately- and publicly-owned economic activities on reservations.  According to Miller, doing so creates economies in which reservation inhabitants can be employed, live, and buy the necessities of life, thereby enabling complete tribal self-sufficiency and self-determination.

Wilkins, D. E., & Stark, H. K. (2011). American Indian politics and the American political system. Lanham, MD.: Rowman & Littlefield.

This is a comprehensive political science study of the structures and functions of Native governments (including those of Alaskan Native communities and Hawaiian Natives) and the distinctive legal and political rights these nations exercise internally. This work also examines the intergovernmental relationship between Native nations, the states, and the federal government. While the older volume is still relevant, the third edition, co-authored by Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark, contains a discussion of the impact of President Obama’s election on Indian Country politics and law. The third edition also contains more discussion of women’s issues, an updated timeline, and updated charts, tables, and figures.

Book Chapters

Cornell, S. E., Kalt, J. P., & Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy (U.S.). (2005). Two approaches to economic development on American Indian reservations: One works, the other doesn’t. In M. Jorgensen (Ed.), Rebuilding native nations: Strategies for governance and development. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

Cornell et al. outline the U.S.-supported “standard approach” to economic development comparing it to the Native-centric methods of the “nation-building approach” which have proven to work.  In the process, the authors outline considerations for Native policy makers interested in assessing their nation’s readiness to engage in economic development.

Haddock, D.D., & Miller, R. (2006). Sovereignty can be a liability: How tribes can mitigate the sovereign’s paradox. In T. L. Anderson, B. L. Benson& T. E. Flanagan (Eds.), Self-Determination: The other path for Native Americans. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

From the economist’s point of view, Native nations hold the power to alter economic relationships, even after trading has begun. However, exercising this tribal power comes at a cost, creating uncertainties which businesses may not have previously considered.  These uncertainties may discourage “too risky” economic development in favor of what is safe, keeping external investment away from reservations.  Haddock and Miller do not offer easy or even agreeable answers.  However, they do present the argument well and give Native economic development proponents something to think about when strategizing wealth creation.


Anderson, T.L., & Parker, D.P. (2008). Sovereignty, credible commitments, and economic prosperity on American Indian reservations. Journal of Law and Economics, 51 (November), 641-666.

Understanding that the depth of poverty on Native reservations cannot be explained solely by natural resource and physical and human capital constraints, Anderson and Parker consider how institutions may play a role.  Focused on the potential for sovereign tribal governments to enter contracts in ways which give the group or certain tribal members short-term benefits, the authors consider how such opportunistic behavior stalls economic development.   Anderson and Parker look to the potential benefits of Public Law 280  and findings that prove to be consistent with cross-country studies of economic growth that emphasize the role of stable institutions in promoting development. (Congress passed Public Law 280 in 1953. Implemented during the 1950s and 1960s, it required some tribes to turn judicial jurisdiction over civil disputes to the states in which they reside.)

Anderson, T. L., & Parker, D. P. (2009). Economic development lessons from and for North American Indian economies. Australian Journal of Agricultural & Resource Economics, 53(1), 105-127.

Anderson and Parker provide a thorough review of the main ideas and concepts of Native economic development from the perspective of agricultural and resource economics.  Although the article appears in an Australian journal, the content is heavily focused on the U.S.

Begay, M., Cornell, S., & Kalt, J. P. (1998). Making research count in Indian country: The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. Journal of Public Service & Outreach, 3 (1), 42-51.

The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, considered the largest and most comprehensive effort to understand how Indian nations can overcome persistent poverty and restore their own economic vitality and social sovereignty, is examined. The authors explore the project’s research base, services to Indian nations, executive education, teaching, and outreach, and discuss future directions.

Trosper, R. L. (1995). Traditional American Indian economic policy. American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 19(1), 65-95.

Trosper examines aspects of American Indian world views and values relevant to economic development policy, specifically: sense of community, connectedness of everything, consideration of future generations, and humility toward nature. He also discusses constraints on economic development arising from these values and common property ownership (usufruct rights plus community control), using examples from the Menominee and Taos Pueblo.

Vinje, D. L. (1996). Native American economic development on selected reservations: A comparative analysis. American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 55(4), 427-442.

Native American gaming is often perceived as the primary economic development strategy that will help reduce reservations’ high poverty rates. There is, however, considerable legislative activity at the state and federal level aimed at reducing gaming activity. Vinje examines three decades of economic development activity on reservations to explore what alternative strategies are available should Indian gambling not prove a panacea. The author concludes that strategies emphasizing government or private employment, natural resources, or manufacturing have fallen short. Education, as an indirect approach to economic development, consistently appears to be one of the more important priorities tribal leaders can stress in their attempts to reduce family poverty rates.


(all information based on detail provided by the websites indicated)

Located at Northern Arizona University’s W. A. Franke College of Business, the Center for American Indian Economic Development (CAIED) is an information and resource center with a mission to collaborate with tribal communities and nations to help them achieve self-sufficiency through community, economic, and business development.  CAIED provides services including technical assistance, business consulting and training, and educational workshops as well as a website with a database library offering current information on Arizona tribes, Indian economic development and general development issues.  Although some services are specific to Arizona’s twenty- two Native nations and communities, information on Indian economic development and general development issues extends beyond Arizona.


Founded in 1987 by professors Stephen Cornell and Joseph P. Kalt at Harvard University, the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development (Harvard Project) within the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University aims to understand and foster the conditions under which sustained, self-determined social and economic development is achieved among American Indian nations. The Harvard Project works closely with the Native Nations Institute for Research, Management, and Policy as well as the interfaculty Harvard University Native American Program (HUNAP).  The Harvard Project’s activities include research, education, and the administration of a tribal governance awards program.


Also see Eric Henson’s power point, The State of American Indian Economic Development (March 2005) at www.wkconline.org/resources/powerpoint/2005_na_henson.ppt.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) is the oldest, largest and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization serving the broad interests of tribal governments and communities.  The NCAI’s purpose is to serve as a forum for unified policy development among tribal governments in order to: (1) protect and advance tribal governance and treaty rights; (2) promote economic development and health and welfare in Indian and Alaska Native communities; and (3) educate the public toward a better understanding of Indian and Alaska Native tribes. The organization advocates on a number of issues in Indian Country, including economic development both on and off reservations, securing programs to provide incentives for economic development, and the attraction of private capital to Indian Country.



The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development (NCAIED) is a national non-profit organization dedicated to developing American Indian economic self-sufficiency through business ownership.


Founded in 2001 by the Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation and The University of Arizona, the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management and Policy (NNI) at the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, was conceived as a self-determination, self-governance, and development resource for Native nations.  Its mission is to assist in the building of capable Native nations that can effectively pursue and ultimately realize their own political, economic, and community development objectives, a process referred to as nation building.  This mission is met via comprehensive, professional training and development programs for Native nations, such as  executive education and youth entrepreneur training programs, policy analysis and research on governance and development in Indian Country, and work with Indigenous groups on strategic and organizational development.


Resource Links

Indian Country Today’s Media Network offers regular articles about Native economic development across the U.S. in its Business News section:


Joint Occasional Papers on Native Affairs (JOPNA) is a joint venture of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development at Harvard University and the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy. The series grew from the desire to put both organizations’ academic research and policy reports together in one place.  Some of the articles detailed in this guide, as well as many others, can be downloaded from this site for free.


The Labriola National American Indian Data Center in the University Libraries at Arizona State University has created a library guide to serve as a starting point for students and other interested parties researching American Indian issues.  The guide includes a list of resources concerning “Economic Development of American Indian tribes.” The resources listed include material found in the Labriola American Indian Data Center, websites, and other research facilities.


2017 AIHEC Student Poetry Slam


On the opening evening of the 2017 AIHEC Student Conference in Rapid City, students from an array of TCUs entertained conference goers with the spoken word at the annual poetry slam. View the video

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