The time is ripe for economic development in Indian Country, according to national and tribal leaders at a conference in Billings this week.
The summit, "Making It Work in Indian Country," aims to connect tribal leaders and employees with each other and government officials so they can share successes and failures, support and opportunities, to build reservation economies.
This is the first economic development summit held in the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Rocky Mountain Region, said Ed Parisian, the BIA director in Billings. It was sponsored and organized with assistance from the federal Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development and the Billings-based Native American Development Corp. and Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council.
A survey of the 10 tribes in Montana and Wyoming that are served by the BIA's Rocky Mountain Region showed unemployment at a "staggering" 67 percent, Parisian said. Twenty-three percent of those people live below poverty level. The aim of the summit is to bring people together to get those numbers to a more reasonable level, Parisian said.
The summit continues today at Montana State University Billings with presentations by tribal, state and federal leaders. About 250 people were registered for the summit.
Bob Middleton, director of the Department of Interior's Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development, said bringing everyone together is integral to spurring Indian Country economy.
"It's an opportunity to start doing the things we need to do to start building stable economies on reservations," Middleton said.
National statistics show that 80 to 90 percent of cash that enters a reservation flows out of its boundaries within the first 48 hours, Middleton said.
"No community can sustain that," he said.
The answer is to create an environment where businesses can be established and flourish so that money not only stays on reservation but circulates at least three times, but hopefully up to seven times, he said.
James Steele is chairman of the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes and of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders' Council. He read participants a section of the U.S. Constitution that outlines how the government deals with commerce with other nations, and specifies Indian tribes.
"We need to have a good understanding of who Indian nations are," Steele said. "They're not just another minority group. They are a group who have a special relationship with the United States of America."
The drafters knew that Indian tribes had military might and abilities in commerce, Steele said. Tribal militaries may be gone, but the ability to operate an economy is strong, he said. The Iroquois in New York have their own passport and a lacrosse team that joins international competitions, Steele said. He hopes that the Flathead tribes will someday trade directly with Maori from Australia in a "native to native, tribes helping tribes" way.
"I want us, as tribal leaders, to dream big," Steele said.