Creating Strong, Sustainable, Indigenous Economies

In developed countries like the United States, jobs are created through high-growth companies driven by technological innovation.  In developing countries, private enterprise is a driver of economic development, where entrepreneurs create start-up companies that utilize global economic forces to create jobs that make use of local skills and practice innovative problem-solving to drive economic growth. In recent history, countries that have experienced economic growth did so by carefully opening up their economies to the private sector by crafting policies that provide support for entrepreneurs.  These countries provided a base from which companies could successfully launch businesses that respond to current global opportunities and exploit naturally occurring competitive advantages in the economy.


The economy of the Navajo Nation, with its large land base and rural population, can certainly be characterized as that of a developing country, despite being geographically within the United States.  An analysis of the current environment indicates that people have begun to capitalize on unique business opportunities in their communities despite an administrative and legal system that does not support private business. Competitive advantages in this region are most often in industries that have been in existence for many generations, where skill levels are high even if the level of traditional education is relatively low. For example, industries such as agriculture and tourism produce products that are created through skills that have been learned from previous generations, and are viewed as time-honored traditional activities.  Rug weaving, pottery and basket making, silver work, and wood carving create goods that are in demand locally and internationally. However, these skills are not being uplifted in the local economy because the entrepreneurial process is often hindered in the current economic environment.


Tribal governments were structured to govern tribal lands and resources to fit the agendas of non-Native communities. As such, it is very difficult for reservation communities to develop a local economy through private enterprise that is based on cultural values and community norms. There are administrative road blocks that blatantly forbid locally owned businesses.  For example, there is no provision in the Navajo Nation code for home-based businesses, making any type of enterprise that is created and run out of homes built on the Navajo Nation illegal. In addition to these outdated and discernible policies, there is the tendency for government officials to create businesses that are insufficiently managed, which over time use resources inefficiently and thus end up failing.  These long-standing issues create indifference for business ownership as an option to meet an individual family’s economic needs, as well as a community’s overall economic development strategy.  Native entrepreneurs who are trying to develop businesses on the reservation face obstacles that are dynamically intertwined with political and historical realities that are far outside their scope of expertise.  What is required is for people in these communities to first focus on the value of entrepreneurship as a source of economic power, whether it is to put food on the table, or to create jobs in a community.


Existing programs for technical assistance or business management training do not go far enough to provide the type of support needed for individuals who want to start businesses on tribal lands.  Start-up reservation-based businesses must take a risk much larger than what is expected elsewhere.  They must deal with an environment that administratively hinders entrepreneurial skills in creative problem solving, resourcefulness, and use of talent in forming a viable business.  Entrepreneurial endeavors get wrapped up in highly regulated processes for everything from attaining land suitable for commercial development to finding capital necessary to start a new business.  Amid so many competing issues and the ever-changing political climate, entrepreneurship–while appreciated–does not get due attention in the policy-making sphere.  Those with the power to change policy and provide resources to implement initiatives to help capitalize these new enterprises either do not recognize the plight of Native entrepreneurs, or they are blissfully unaware due to lack of dialogue. NABIN was crafted to act as an advocate within the local communities to assist in crafting policy and legal changes, as well as to identify other unique solutions that will clear the path for Native entrepreneurs.

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