The potential for economic development on reservations differs widely depending on the reservation’s location and access to resources. Great Lake tribes have been able to take full advantage of the federal government’s support for tribal sovereignty because they had a history of participation in the regional economy and treaty-guaranteed access to significant natural resources that could be developed commercially. Compared to tribes that do not have this tradition—and the upland Plains tribes are a good example—the Great Lakes tribes have a higher living standard and better employment history. In 2000, the median per capita household income for reservations in Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota was $21,302. On Minnesota reservations, the median was $26,250, and on Wisconsin reservations, $26,842 (higher for tribes in the more urbanized southern part of these states). And a comparison of unemployment rates in 2005 shows that the median unemployment rate was 73% on the Plains reservations. In Minnesota, the median unemployment rate on reservations was between 26% and 39%, and on Wisconsin reservations the median was 62%.
Why has economic development been more difficult for Plains tribes? First, both the Plains subsistence and commercial economy was based on buffalo-hunting, and, when the buffalo became virtually extinct in the last quarter of the 19th century, the Plains tribes had little option but to rely on rations and provisions provided by treaties and agreements with the United States.
Second, the upland plains is very arid (which makes farming very difficult), and it is remote from major population centers that could support businesses or offer employment. Here, Indian casinos, for example, are small, minimally profitable enterprises. Still, the large reservations had grazing land, so a transition to ranching was the best hope for self-sufficiency.
Tribal members worked with determination to make this transition to ranching, building on their knowledge of herding and skills as horsemen. But they faced overwhelming obstacles. The policy of the federal government vacillated between supporting and discouraging ranching. Indian ranchers in the 1890s built up their herds and sold beef to the agencies and to the eastern markets. But in the 20th century, federal policy encouraged the leasing of reservation grazing land to non-Indian cattlemen. Sometimes virtually all the reservation grazing land was leased, and at below market prices. Indians worked as cowboys and farm laborers for low wages. During this time federal policy also promoted the allotment of reservation land to individuals and the sale of unallotted land to non-Indians at below market value. Federal agents encouraged allottees to lease their allotments, and many allottees were given fee patents on their land, which they then sold. Indian and non-Indian owned land was “checkerboarded,” so that Indians could not accumulate sufficient pasture to raise cattle. By the time of the New Deal, there was little grazing land left for Indian operators. From 1934 through the 1940s, federal policy encouraged ranching, even helping to purchase land and set up loan programs. But during the “termination” era of the 1950s, many of the gains were lost. So despite high interest in ranching and efforts by tribal governments to promote cattle operations, today only a minority of tribal members own ranches, which often are not large enough to support a family.
In the early 20th century, Plains tribes began to advocate for control over the management of the mineral resources on their reservations and over the disposition of the mineral income. They struggled to retain subsurface mineral rights and to persuade the government to promote energy development and obtain market value prices for their oil, gas, and coal. After the Indian Reorganization Act, tribal leaders had some success in gaining control over mineral income, especially in obtaining per capita payments to mitigate poverty. In 1938, in response to tribes’ complaints that their mineral lands were leased at below market value, Congress passed legislation that required competitive bidding. In the 1970s, complaints about air and water pollution led Congress to grant the tribes authority in 1986 to set air and water quality standards. Aided by the Council for Energy Resource Tribes (organized in 1975 with mostly Plains and Southwest tribes), tribal leaders developed expertise in environmental and monitoring issues. Partly in response to the tribes’ discovery of energy company thefts of tribal minerals, Congress passed the Indian Mineral Development Act in 1982, which authorized tribes to develop their minerals through regulation, negotiation (for jobs, environmental quality, monitoring and accounting), and joint ventures with energy companies. Also that year, the Supreme Court authorized tribes to tax mineral production on their lands. Leases, royalties, bonuses, and taxes have been the major source of income for Wind River, Blackfeet, Crow, Northern Cheyenne, and Fort Peck, and these reservations continue to struggle to defend their resources. That said, the members of the “energy tribes” are not “rich Indians”: the reservation populations are large enough so that the per capita shares of the income are small and few energy jobs go to Indians.
How do reservations that lack mineral wealth, like Pine Ridge and Rosebud, try to improve economic conditions? These Sioux (or Lakota) live as members of large households of relatives who pool their labor and income. A household may have only one or two people working full-time for wages, but the other members contribute income from part-time wages, social security or pensions, or public assistance, and possibly a little income from ranching or a small business. Others hunt and fish, babysit or do housework, and in over 80% of the households people engage in microenterprises. These businesses, run out of the home, bring in income or goods in exchange. The Pine Ridge Sioux and the Rosebud Sioux have very limited funds for economic development, but both work to obtain contracts and grants so they can hire tribal members. Programs provide low-rent housing and educational grants, and health care is available from the Indian Health Service. Of course, tribes with money from oil and gas wells and coal mines have more income to hire their members, support education, and offer services to mitigate the effects of poverty.
All the Plains tribes and their members pursue the sovereignty agenda of self-rule and self-sufficiency in various kinds of social activities and programs that affirm identity. Some tribes have historically resisted assimilation to Western values and customs, so the sovereignty era has meant that they can openly practice their traditions. Others, who experienced a significant decline in Native ceremonies, language, and sharing customs, embarked on a process of cultural revival. The American Indian Movement was very active on the Plains, especially at Pine Ridge and Rosebud, and AIM’s advocacy for sovereignty and Native culture had a major influence on Indian youth in the late 1960s and 1970s. Generally, identity in these Plains communities is reaffirmed (and often reinterpreted) in several ways. Skill in horsemanship is important and often is expressed in rodeo participation. The reintroduction of buffalo herds is widespread, with some tribes primarily using the buffalo for food, others for commercial sale, and others to reinforce community unity through ceremonial feasts. Native religious ritual has undergone a revival. In the case of the Crow, that revival began during the New Deal. For others, such as Fort Belknap, the revival process began in the 1970s. Powwows are always vehicles for the expression of individual and tribal identity, the revitalization of music traditions, understandings about kinship, and the occasion for “giveaways,” in which the values of generosity and sharing are reinforced. The tribalization of education also is widespread, with reservation communities asserting control of the schools on the reservation and establishing tribal colleges and Native language programs. And rituals that reinforce collective memory are important, especially in respect to massacres (such as Wounded Knee, Sand Creek, or Baker) or in relation to sacred sites (such as the Black Hills).
In metropolitan areas, Native people generally are integrated into the wider economy. Their tribally-owned businesses in these urban areas are often very successful enterprises that hire large numbers of tribal members, and non-Indians as well. In contrast, in sparsely populated, rural America, tribal members have more difficulty finding permanent employment and tribal businesses are marginally profitable or have only a small number of employees. The Northeast, Southeast, California, Pacific Northwest, and Southwest are metropolitan sectors of the United States, which are heavily populated and densely settled areas with centers of commerce, finance, and industry.
In the NORTHEAST, the members of Native communities have been integrated into the wider economy for generations, often working in towns and cities within commuting distance from their communities. Some states have established reservations, and there are also a few federally recognized tribes with trust land—two in Connecticut, one in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, five in Maine, and nine in New York (including reservations for the Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga, Mohawk, and Tuscarora). The two tribes in densely populated Connecticut (Pequot and Mohegan) are economic powerhouses employing thousands of non-Indians as well as tribal members in their resort-casinos. Some of the New York tribes in urban areas (Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Syracuse) have businesses, including profitable casinos.
Scattered through the SOUTHEAST are small, rural Native communities that historically were disadvantaged by a racial hierarchy and whose members are integrated into the wider economy, many employed in urban areas. Some tribes have small reservations established by states. The few that are federally recognized (one in North Carolina, Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi; three in Texas; four in Louisiana; and five in Florida) have some trust land and can operate businesses and services. The Seminole in Florida have very profitable resort-casinos and other businesses. In eastern Oklahoma are tribes with large populations and significant economic development, including all sorts of tribally-owned businesses in addition to casinos and resorts (the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole).
In CALIFORNIA the many Native communities are small in size and population after a long history of dispossession and genocide. These communities have been integrated into the wider economy, where metropolitan areas offer a variety of employment opportunities and where, in rural communities, Indians had low-paying jobs. The state rejected the idea of treaty reservations, so few groups had reservations before the 1930s. In the New Deal era, the federal government established 117 Indian communities but terminated (removed the trust status of their land) about half in the 1950s. In 1963 there were over 65,000 Indians in California and, due to a class action lawsuit in 1983, many communities were restored. Now there are over 113 federally recognized Indian reservations or rancherias (very small reservations) in California. Few have more than 500 members. Federal recognition and a land base, however small, make it possible for tribal governments to succeed at economic development, provide social services, and support cultural renaissance. In rural areas, distant from metropolitan areas and interstates, the tribes work on small projects, often agricultural. In metropolitan areas—such as the vicinity of San Diego, Los Angeles, or Palm Springs—and near interstate highways, the tribes have developed many profitable businesses, including resort-casinos, and have become major employers, for non-Indians as well as Indians.
The SOUTHWEST has 45 federal reservations. The Arizona and New Mexico region is a metropolitan area, although there are some rural areas where there are large reservations on which the tribe is the major employer and there is high unemployment. On small reservations near urban areas tribal members work for wages on and off their reservations and unemployment is low. In Arizona near Flagstaff is the large Hopi reservation (villages atop mesas surrounded by farm land) where the tribal government earns a high income from oil, gas, and coal, and Hopis work mostly for the coal company and in the tourist industry. Also in Arizona are the mostly small “Yuman” and the Pima and Papago reservations, where many tribal members obtain jobs in Phoenix and Tucson, and tribal governments operate profitable casinos near cities and interstates, as well as support agriculture and other jobs. There are 19 Pueblo (villages surrounded by agricultural lands) reservations in New Mexico that have small land bases and serve as ceremonial centers for their members who work in nearby Albuquerque or Los Alamos. On most, tribal governments operate resort-casinos and tribal members also work in the flourishing tourist industry. In New Mexico and Arizona are four large Apache reservations that are more remote and largely agricultural. Unemployment (up to 68%) is a problem despite the tribes’ ownership of casinos or other businesses. The 17 million acre Navajo reservation (one-fourth of the state of Arizona, part of New Mexico, and a small section of Utah) has a huge enrolled population (upwards of 180,000). In this vast rural region are small, sparsely settled communities where Navajos raise corn, sheep, and manufacture jewelry and other items to sell. The tribe has a high income from oil and gas, coal, and uranium but cannot create nearly the number of jobs needed, so unemployment is high (52% in 2005). Navajos work for the coal mines, tribally-owned shopping centers, and tribal forestry. Navajos have a long history of working for wages in the region, and a large sector of the membership lives and works off the reservation.
In the Pacific Northwest Coast and Columbia River system in Washington and Oregon, there are 39 federal reservations. These have small memberships—most number less than 1,000. Along the coast tribal members do both subsistence and commercial fishing, as they have for generations. These activities grew in importance after the Boldt decision in 1974, in which the federal courts established treaty rights to half the fish for treaty signatories. Native fishermen may still face difficulties due to lack of capital and environmental degradation. Cultural renaissance is built on the fishing rights struggle and tribal involvement in commercial fishing and protection of the environment. Near the urban areas of Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma, and Portland some tribes have resort-casinos that are profitable. The median unemployment in Washington is comparable to that in the Great Lakes, and in Oregon it is a little lower than in the Great Lakes area. In both regions, the median unemployment is considerably lower than in the Plains, which is more rural and lacks a strong commercial economy.
The region most comparable to the upland Plains is the Desert area of Nevada and Utah—a sparsely populated, rural area. Here there are 32 federal reservations for Shoshones, Washoes, Utes, and Paiutes. Most are very small settlements with small populations, where tribal members have worked for ranchers or townspeople for low wages for many generations. Many also do subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering. After tribal governments began contracting programs, more jobs were available but in these remote, sparsely populated areas, most did not have casinos or other businesses with large numbers of employees. These desert reservations have been the target of efforts to dump nuclear and other hazardous waste. The Paiute settlements in Las Vegas and the Moapa reservation near there have a profitable resort and casino, respectively. The large, remote Walker River reservation in Nevada has 77% unemployment and little tribal income. The large Pyramid Lake reservation in Utah attracts vacationers, especially fishermen, and some tribal members ranch but there is relatively high unemployment here even though the reservation is within commuting distance of Reno. The largest reservation is the one- million- acre Uintah Ouray in northeast Utah, which has a very large income from oil, but 77% unemployment. The 3,000 tribal members hunt and fish and do some ranching, and the tribe has invested in manufacturing and other businesses.
So the contrast between metropolitan and rural regions in the U. S. is an extremely important factor in how successful tribes can be in developing businesses and reducing unemployment in their homelands. A comparison of the Great Lakes and upland Plains unemployment and median household income is a good example. To understand the disparity between the tribes, one must understand the relative urbanization of their respective regions. For example, the population of Montana in 2000 was 902,195 (and the population density was 6.2 persons per square mile), while the population of Wisconsin was 5,363,675 and the population density, 98.8.
Marjane Ambler. Breaking the Iron Bonds: Indian Control of Energy Development, 1990. The author discusses the history of Indian attempts to gain control of their energy resources: obtaining ownership, the right to negotiate the terms of leases and royalties, and the authority to distribute the proceeds of mineral income and to tax energy companies.
Donald J. Berthrong. The Southern Cheyenne, 1963. Historian Berthrong provides a history of the Southern Cheyenne from the late 17th century to 1875.
Thomas Biolsi. “Deadliest Enemies”: Law and the Making of Race Relations On and Off Rosebud Reservation, 2001. Anthropologist Biolsi discusses the history of Indian-White relations on and around Rosebud Reservation and how legal decisions have shaped these relations. He considers jurisdictional issues about highway policing, liquor sales, and reservation boundaries.
Sebastian Felix Braun. Buffalo Inc.: American Indians and Economic Development, 2008. Anthropologist Braun did fieldwork at Cheyenne River reservation during 2000-2001. His book focuses on the efforts of the Cheyenne River Sioux to develop a commercial buffalo enterprise and the repercussions of the project.
Raymond J. DeMallie, ed. Handbook of North American Indians: Plains, v. 13, 2 pts., 2001. This volume provides sketches of the histories and cultures of the Plains tribes up to the present.
Raymond J. DeMallie, ed. The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk’s Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt, 1984. Black Elk’s narratives about his life in prereservation and Pine Ridge reservation times are given commentary by editor and anthropologist DeMallie.
Hugh A. Dempsey. Big Bear: The End of Freedom, 1984. This is a biography of Big Bear, born in 1825. He was a leader of the Plains Cree in Canada who tried to achieve peace with the Canadian government. He was arrested and died in 1888. His descendants live on Rocky Boy Reservation.
John C. Ewers. The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains, 1958. Anthropologist Ewers provides a history of the Montana Blackfeet from the late 18th century to the early reservation years.
John C. Ewers. The Horse in Blackfoot Indian Culture with Comparative Material from Other Western Tribes, 1955. Ewers’s study is a detailed look at how the horse diffused through the plains and how its introduction changed Plains Indian societies.
Loretta Fowler. The Arapaho, 2006 (rev. ed.). This book is written for a general audience and compares Northern and Southern Arapaho history, culture, and social organization up to the present.
Loretta Fowler. Arapahoe Politics, 1851-1978, 1982. Anthropologist Fowler examines changes in Northern Arapaho leadership in the 19th and 20th centuries as leaders coped with economic and other changes.
Loretta Fowler. The Columbia Guide to American Indians of the Great Plains, 2003. The author provides an introduction to the archaeology and an overview of the cultures and histories of upland and prairie Plains tribes, with chapters on trade relations, treaties and American expansion, reservation life, and the self-determination or sovereignty era.
Fowler, Loretta. Shared Symbols, Contested Meanings: Gros Ventre Culture and History, 1778-1984, 1987. Anthropologist Fowler provides an overview of Gros Ventre history, including economic activity, and a discussion of relations between the Gros Ventres and Assiniboines on Fort Belknap reservation. The book also discusses political and ritual revivalism in the 1970s and 1980s.
Loretta Fowler. “Tribal Sovereignty Movements Compared: The Plains Region,” in Beyond Red Power: American Indian Politics and Activism since 1900, eds. Daniel M. Cobb and Loretta Fowler, 2007. The author compares the ways sovereignty agendas are implemented in the upland plains reservations of South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and in western Oklahoma.
Rodney Frey. The World of Crow Indians, 1987. Anthropologist Frey studied contemporary Crow life. He focuses on ritual and kinship.
Elizabeth S. Grobsmith. Lakota of the Rosebud, 1981. Anthropologist Grobsmith did fieldwork on Rosebud reservation in 1973-74. Her focus is on political organization and politics during the American Indian Movement’s activity there, economics, community ritual and religion, language and education.
William T. Hagan. United States-Comanche Relations: The Reservation Years, 1976. Historian Hagan provides a history from 1867 through the early reservation years when cattle leasing influenced reservation politics.
Frederick E. Hoxie. The Crow, 1989. Written for a general audience, this book by historian Hoxie covers the early 19th century to the 1980s.
Sharon O’Brien. “Cheyenne River Sioux” in American Indian Tribal Governments, by Sharon O’Brien, 1989. Anthropologist O’Brien gives an overview of the history of these Sioux from the treaty era through the early reservation years, the New Deal, and the Oahe Dam settlement. She provides information on economic development and tribal government.
Peter Iverson. When Indians Became Cowboys: Native Peoples and Cattle Ranching in the American West, 1994. Historian Iverson discusses the efforts of western tribes to raise cattle and the obstacles they faced from United States policy. He focuses on the northern plains and the Southwest, and he explains how cattle ranching became a way of life that was socially and culturally rewarding for Indians.
Alice Beck Kehoe. The Ghost Dance: Ethnohistory and Revitalization, 1989. Anthropologist Kehoe provides a history of the Ghost Dance movement, a discussion of the massacre at Wounded Knee, and an overview of other social and religious movements aimed at revitalization of the way of life of oppressed people (including AIM’s Wounded Knee occupation in 1973).
Michael L. Lawson. Dammed Indians Revisited: The Continuing History of the Pick-Sloan Plan and the Missouri River Sioux, 2009. Historian Lawson documents the struggle of leaders at Cheyenne River and Standing Rock to prevent the flooding of their reservations from the Oahe Dam, then for adequate compensation for the rehabilitation of their communities once the project was complete.
Allison Fuss Mellis. Riding Buffaloes and Broncos: Rodeo and Native Traditions in the Northern Great Plains, 2003. Historian Mellis explores how 19th and 20th century rodeo was a vehicle to strengthen Indian identity and social ties and reinforce Native values. She focuses on Crow, Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Northern Cheyenne reservations.
Mindy J. Morgan. The Bearer of This Letter: Language Ideologies, Literacy Practices, and the Fort Belknap Indian Community, 2009. Anthropologist Morgan did fieldwork on Fort Belknap, where she assisted the Assiniboines in the development of a language program for the teaching and preservation of the native language during 1996-97.
James Mooney. Calendar History of the Kiowa Indians, 1898. Mooney sketches Kiowa history in the 19th century.
James C. Olson, Red Cloud and the Sioux Problem, 1965. Historian Olson discusses Red Cloud’s leadership during the treaty negotiations of the 1860s and subsequent negotiations over reservation boundaries and conditions. Red Cloud’s story helps illuminate relations between Sioux and the United States. Olson also discusses internal Sioux politics and rivalries.
Kathleen Ann Pickering. Lakota Culture, World Economy, 2000. Anthropologist Pickering did fieldwork on Pine Ridge and Rosebud during 1991-93. She studied the contemporary economy, focusing on household consumption and various kinds of household production, and showing how Lakota identity shaped and was shaped by the reservation economy. She gives detailed information on microenterprises.
Willard H. Rollings. The Comanche, 1989. Historian Rollings writes for a general audience and covers Comanche history from the 18th century to the 1980s.
Paul C. Rosier. Rebirth of the Blackfeet Nation, 1912-1954, 2001. Historian Rosier gives a detailed history of the business committee leaders’ efforts to gain control over tribal resources, including oil.
Mary Jane Schneider. “Standing Rock Reservation” in North Dakota’s Indian Heritage, 1990. Anthropologist Schneider gives an overview of the history of the Sioux of Standing Rock.
Henry E. Stamm, IV. People of the Wind River: The Eastern Shoshones, 1825-1900, 1999. Historian Stamm provides a history of the Eastern Shoshone in prereservation times and during the early years of reservation settlement.
Sam Stanley, ed. American Indian Economic Development, 1978. Though dated now, these essays and the editor’s comparative analysis provide good background on the issue of economic development in American Indian communities. The tribes discussed are Navajo (Arizona and New Mexico), Lummi (Washington), Morongo (California), Pine Ridge Sioux, Oklahoma Cherokee, Passamaquoddy (Maine), and Papago (Arizona).
Orlan J. Svingen. The Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, 1877-1900, 1993. This book provides a history of reservation political and economic life in the late 19th century.
Veronica E. Velarde Tiller. Tiller’s Guide to Indian Country, 2005. The guide profiles all the federally recognized tribes in the country. It provides information on land status, enrollment, government, economic development, education, and infrastructure, and gives a brief overview of each tribe’s history.
Paula L. Wagoner. “They Treated Us Just Like Indians”: The Worlds of Bennett County, South Dakota, 2002. Anthropologist Wagoner did fieldwork in Bennett County (an area ceded by the Pine Ridge Sioux in 1910 where there still were Sioux living on allotments) during 1997. Her focus is on the meaning of Fullblood, Mixedblood, and White identities and the relations between people who define themselves thus. She considers land issues and conflict over the Indian mascot at the high school.
Richard White. “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West, 1991. Historian White describes the American West as a series of urban enclaves (California, for example) and marginalized rural areas, all with a history of dependence on the federal government. The rural region (South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming, for example) is arid, has a declining population, and has an economy based on extractive industries. Minorities are exploited and large scale, capital-intensive agriculture crowds out small farms and ranches. The demand for energy from the urban centers calls for dams and strip mining in the rural West. Non-Indians here are economically marginalized; Indians even more so.
John R. Wunder. The Kiowa, 1989. This book is written for a general audience and provides an overview of Kiowa history from the 18th century to the 1970s.