Roundtable Recap – Economic Empowerment for Native Communities: Harnessing Innovation and Self-Governance to Unlock Economic Potential
WASHINGTON – On April 7, 2022, the House Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth – led by Chairman Jim Himes (CT-04) – held a roundtable, “Economic Empowerment for Native Communities: Harnessing Innovation and Self-Governance to Unlock Economic Potential,” to hear from experts on pathways for Native American communities to foster sustainable economic development.
“I think it's important to frame today's discussion with two important recognitions: Tribes are sovereign and maintain a government-to-government relationship with the federal government; the federal government has a trust obligation to Native people,” stated Congresswoman Moore, who chaired the roundtable. “Unfortunately, the U.S. government has too often failed to recognize Tribal sovereignty and meet these trust obligations.”
“We are here today for real meaningful engagement on these issues,” continued Congresswoman Moore. “Bipartisanship is generally hard to come by, but in my experience, issues related to Indian Country present real opportunities to work together to put aside partisan differences.”
Special Guest Congresswoman Sharice Davids (KS-03)
“Native enterprises across Indian Country come in forms as diverse as Tribal nations themselves, and Native economic development fuels not only tribal communities, but often the regional economies around them as well,” said Rep. Sharice Davids, Co-Chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus. “Each and every Member of Congress has an obligation to uphold the federal trust responsibility. I look forward to our continued partnerships with the Subcommittee and tribal leaders to work on breaking down barriers and expanding opportunities for American Indians and Alaska Natives to economically prosper.”
The following experts and stakeholders spoke before the Select Committee on their challenges and recommendations for creating economic opportunity across Indian Country.
Mr. Timothy Williams, Chairman of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, spoke to the challenges Tribal leaders face providing economic opportunities for Tribal members. “As Tribal leaders, it is our responsibility to provide for the social and economic welfare of our Tribal members and those living within our communities,” said Mr. Williams. “We must meet those responsibilities without many of the resources and tools available to state and local governments.”
Ms. Marie Summers, Councilwoman of the Oneida Business Committee, spoke to the importance of self-governance for providing effective economic development initiatives. “Self-governance is rooted in the principle that Tribes know how to administer federal programs and services to their communities more effectively than anonymous federal employees in Washington, D.C., who may not understand our community, our needs, or our people,” said Ms. Summers.
Ms. Karena Thundercloud, Vice President of the Ho-Chunk Nation, discussed the challenges retaining workers and promoting a stable workforce in Tribal communities. “To retain employees, employers must provide a stable and attractive work environment,” said Ms. Thundercloud, adding that the main barriers to workforce development are a “lack of childcare, transportation, disability accommodations, and access to education and training.”
Mr. James Crawford, Tribal Secretary of the Potawatomi Tribe, explained the challenges Tribes face with competitive grants to support local enterprise development and argued federal funding should be disbursed directly to Tribes. Mr. Crawford noted since competitive grant programs pit Tribes directly against each other, “The best way to fix this problem is to award federal dollars directly to Tribal governments, just as the federal government did with separate funding to tribes through the CARES Act and then later through the American Rescue Plan.
Mr. Dante Desiderio, Chief Executive Officer of the National Congress of American Indians, reflected on the importance of access to capital for Indian Country and described the federal government’s options for expanding access for Tribal Nations. “In the economic world, and the currency of the country, for economic development, capital is water. Viewing things through that lens is helpful because Indian Country has been starved by not receiving the capital it needs – the water it needs – and it is reflected in the policies,” said Mr. Desiderio. He explained that banks have been uncomfortable working with Tribal governments due to complexities with jurisdiction and land status, and he then proposed developing a community bank for Native communities, stating “With a successful, functioning, and well capitalized community development bank for Indian Country, we can go out and get the private capital to match the community development bank investment."
Ms. Patrice Kunesh, Founder and Director of Peȟíŋ Haha Consulting, discussed strategies to help Tribes realize reservation communities’ full economic potential. “The greatest areas of economic potential for reservation communities come from their land base,” said Ms. Kunesh. To create an efficient property system, Ms. Kunesh added that we must “create a modern 21st century self-governance property system,” while “encouraging creative credit tools,” and “resolving the double taxation threat.”
The subsequent Q&A portion of the hearing produced the following points of exchange between the Select Committee Members and speakers:
Chairman Jim Himes, noting his experience on the House Financial Services Committee, asked panelists what the Select Committee could be doing to address the lack of capital in these communities. Mr. Desiderio explained how fundamental increasing technical assistance in Tribal communities is to increase overall access to capital in those communities. He further noted that states need incentives to give tax credits to Tribes and reaffirmed the need for direct Federal transfers to Tribes.
Ranking Member Bryan Steil asked the panelists for lessons for the federal government to improve economic development in Tribal areas. Mr. Crawford noted “an important step is to incentivize building on reservation communities and bring businesses that could stay for 20 to30 years," as well as being able to collateralize on Tribal lands to expand access to capital for Tribal Nations.
Congresswoman Gwen Moore highlighted several consistent themes across all speakers’ opening statements, including the differential tax treatments that Tribal governments experience compared to state and local governments and the need to maintain the government-to-government relationship that Tribes have with the U.S. government.
Congresswoman Stephanie Bice asked the panelists about missing and murdered indigenous women across reservation communities. Ms. Kunesh shared that there is a lack of data to understand the dept and breadth of the issue across Indian Country and pointed to a lack of political will for providing adequate resources. Separately, Congresswoman Bice asked the panelists what areas of collaboration are possible with the medical research community to address diseases specific to Tribal members. Chairman Williams noted how private medical information is among Native Americans, and active dialogue between the medical research community and Native communities is needed to adequately address Native Americans’ needs.
Congresswoman Sara Jacobs asked the panelists what policies the U.S. government should consider to address poverty related challenges across Tribal communities. "One of the most important things we can do is focus on education," stated Ms. Kunesh. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ms. Kunesh explained "We need to think about what trauma looks like and help provide supportive care," including mental health services, multi-generational care, expanding the child-tax credit, and earned income tax credit to tackle issues beyond strictly poverty in Indian Country.