Sustainable Economic Development in Indian Country

By: Nikke Alex | Intern
Theodore J. Griswold | Partner |

Today, in mainstream media, the only economic ventures that people see Tribal Governments pursuing are mega gaming and mineral resource extraction. While many Tribes are engaging in both ventures, many other Tribes are not. Unemployment rates are very high in Indian Country. On average, the unemployment rate on reservations varies from 40% to 90%. Factors contributing to these high rates of unemployment include the isolation of Tribal communities plus the sparse education opportunities.

Creative programs are needed to help young Native people think outside the box beyond these two common economic ventures. In Southern California, one Native youth program has done just that. The American Indian Recruitment (AIR) Program promotes higher education and success in academics in American Indian communities. This past spring, AIR’s Leaders Project in partnership with the Tribal Learning Community & Educational Exchange Program offered a course to high school students entitled “Economic Development in Indian Country.” The course explored the pros and cons of various economic development strategies being used throughout Indian Country and the implications those strategies have on Tribal sovereignty.

As a part of the course, the high school participants were tasked with developing feasibility studies for a potential business in their Tribal communities. Dr. Joe Graham instructed his students to choose projects that reflected community values and their cultures. If Native People focus on their passions and community cultural wealth, then an economic venture is more likely to be sustainable.

On June 11, the students presented their completed feasibility studies at Hewlett-Packard in San Diego, CA. The students’ presentations were very thorough and well thought-out. Of the six presentations, the potential businesses ranged from implementing solar energy to starting a culturally-based hotel to creating a market that sells produce from local farms and gardens. Each of these proposals addressed a specific need of the students’ home Tribal Government. These particular presentations stuck out, because these are all examples of green business ventures.

Perhaps Tribal leaders should begin thinking outside the box as well. The opportunities for green business ventures are limitless. Tribal Governments can implement solar and wind, retrofitting programs, farmers’ markets, and artisans’ cooperatives. The transition to green business ventures promotes community and cultural values while conserving land, water, and air for future generations.

The transition to a green energy economy is becoming more realistic for Tribes. On July 13, Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva (AZ) introduced the Tribal Tax Incentive for Renewable Energy Act. This Act would allow Tribal Governments to take advantage of federal renewable energy tax credits, and, ultimately, these tax incentives would allow Tribes to exert their energy autonomy. Federal incentives like this Act could create more job opportunities, so young Native People can delve into the green energy economy. Looks like these forward-thinking AIR Leaders are headed in the right direction!

Nikke Alex is a citizen of the Navajo Nation and is entering her third year at the University New Mexico School of Law. Nikke has worked with Indigenous youth throughout the world developing leadership pathway programs that value and reflect sustainability. Nikke is a recipient of the 2015 Procopio Native American Internship.

Ted is head of the Native American Law practice group and primary editor for the Blogging Circle. Connect with Ted at and 619.515.3277.