Charles Trimble: New economic hope on Pine Ridge Reservation

When I read the Lakota Country Times I am heartened by the economic progress that oftentimes is hidden in the more alarming media reports of rampant alcoholism and the resulting horrors that the disease brings to the communities there on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

There is hope to be had in what is happening on the economic scene, and it’s mostly in the districts, in the villages, out of sight of visiting camera crews and reporters.

In 1978, after six years as Executive Director, I left the National Congress of American Indians to enter the private sector as a consultant. In my experiences with NCAI I saw that one of the greatest needs on the Indian Reservations was employment opportunity – jobs. I formed a corporation chartered in Washington, DC, and set out to help resolve this problem.

I had a naïve belief that I could bring business to reservations in the form of capital, management, and industry. I would market my talents and knowledge to tribes and to private sector financial and manufacturing corporations, and work to bring the two together for business. The tribes had available lands, tax immunities, natural resources, abundant available workforces, and access to financing from federal programs, including the BIA’s Indian Financing Act, the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) and its successor the Administration for Native Americans (ANA), the Economic Development Administration (EDA), and HUD, And I felt well connected among those agencies and tribes to offer a valuable service.

My plans followed the general thinking in Washington and in much of Indian Country at the time; i.e.: if the problem on Indian reservation is jobs – that means that the answer is industry in the form of manufacturing, data entry, large scale agriculture, and such; the more labor-intensive, the better. Luring American corporations to come to the reservations involved promising them tax incentives, government preferences, land availability, natural resources, and a plentiful and cheap (albeit untrained) workforce.

In other words, “Come and exploit us.” Use our people and resources and make yourselves rich; just give our people jobs and all would be well.

The Economic Development Administration even funded large scale industrial parks on many reservations to facilitate start-ups, and job training funds were available from the BIA and other agencies to offset sunk costs up-front.

To be sure, some tribes with exceptional leadership did wonders with this concept. Two with which I had had direct experiences were the Mississippi Choctaw under Chairman Phillip Martin and the Fort Peck Assiniboine Sioux Tribes under Chairman Norman Hollow.

On the other hand, there were many tribes in which this concept was time after time just another expensive failure, most notably on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Through the years, the leaders of the Oglala Sioux Tribe have tried desperately to bring jobs to the reservation. And their efforts succeeded in bringing businesses such as a fish hook snelling (hand tying) industry, an arrow manufacturing plant, and a substantial footwear (moccasin) factory, all owned or managed by corporations off the reservation. At the outset, those corporations benefited from the federal and tribal inputs, but abandoned the ventures when the federal subsidies expired, or when they learned of cheaper options off-shore.

In one instance, the tribe was saved from failure and massive debt when a due diligence report on the well-known jacket, cap and emblem manufacturing plant was rapidly losing market share to off-shore competition and was looking to dump the failing business onto the unwary Oglala Sioux Tribe. Based on that report, the BIA declined funding for it.

Federal Indian programs for years were based on a conviction that commerce and business were beyond Indian people. Indian schools were invariably trade schools, a concept that also provided budgetary relief for the schools’ operations through the use of students for agriculture, domestic and maintenance work as part of their training. But any kind of education or training in commerce and business were not to be found. The curriculum for all Indian schools was dictated by the federal government; the church-affiliated Indian schools that received federal support on a per-student basis also had to comply with federal dictate as to curriculum.

Thus, for many years, Indian people on the reservations were left out of the economy, although many mixed-blood people – particularly in the cattle business – prospered. Tribal members who did get into the commercial economy were usually marginal mixed-bloods who were trusted by bankers in the reservation border towns for financial support.

Banking itself was foreign to the reservations, except where the reservation encompassed larger towns with mixed Indian/white populations, such as those in eastern Oklahoma. And federal funding for development went mostly to tribal projects rather than individual Indian prospects.

The late 1970s and early 1980s saw a new movement in Indian Country, stimulated by a better educated generation and new technology, toward individual entrepreneurship. Out of the new generation of young tribal men and women came new leaders with knowledge, ideas and confidence who promoted a new concept of encouraging and funding the individual entrepreneur: merchants, artists, inventors, newspaper publishers, and craftspeople.

Local people see and deal with local problems every day, and it is the problems of shortages, needs and demands that provide markets and offer opportunity and challenge. And someone or some group in the local community will eventually come up with the solutions. But they need help in planning, financing, and perhaps some technical assistance.

Rebecca Adamson, a young visionary of Cherokee descent, inspired by the Grameen banking of Bangladesh, established a similar system of local, cooperative lending circles. Associates of her First Nations Development Institute, like Elsie Meeks from the Oglala Sioux Tribe carried the concepts to fruition, and that can be seen on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The Lakota Funds is a model financial resource for start-ups on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and the first Lakota Federal Credit Union brings banking onto the reservation where their market is, and both open the door for tribal people to get funds to realize their dreams. The First Peoples Fund with its mission of “establishing a creative economy,” sees “art as an economic engine in Native communities,” as its slogans proudly herald.

And the Oglala Sioux Tribe Partnership for Housing, Inc. is a further step toward Lakota economic survival and growth, offering tribal members home ownership – equity, pride and true self-sufficiency.

There still aren’t the great numbers of jobs that are needed to drive out poverty from the Reservation and replace hopelessness with productive citizenship, but a new beginning is happening, from the homes and villages up. And that is something to celebrate.

Charles “Chuck” Trimble is a member of the Oglala Lakota Oyate, born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-1978. He can be reached at cchuktrim@aol.com. His website is www.iktomisweb.com.

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