Every few decades it seems that Indian country has new concepts that it adopts that become the backbone for how we talk about ourselves. Those concepts usually seem to be about how we frame our relationships as Indian people to the dominant society, or more specifically to the federal government. They often mirror whatever the current policy regime happens to be. For the last 40 years we have spoken in terms of self-determination and sovereignty. Now “good governance” seems to be our new buzzwords.
A few weeks ago I attended a conference on that very topic at a prominent law school. It was organized by some prominent Native law scholars and academics, people highly regarded for their brilliant work in the fields of Indian law and Native American studies. Sadly, the conference was only one day long and could easily have filled two or three days with presentations. The presenter list read like a who’s who of people that have written influential policy papers, law articles, and books on topics related to tribal governance.
But there was something that stood out about the topics they were talking about and the kind of work many of them are doing: the presentations seemed to have a heavy emphasis on economic development. How to best maximize economic development; good self-government for better economic development; attracting business to the reservations; these were the kinds of things being talked about under the umbrella of good Native governance. It was as though good Native governance means good economic development.
What was missing, it seemed to me, were any critical perspectives. Possible critical topics that could have been included: the problem of tribal disenrollment in gaming tribes; the environmental repercussions of resource extraction on reservation lands; the dangers of hydraulic fracking to reservation communities; income disparity in Indian communities. Here’s one: how about negotiating the philosophical differences between capitalism and indigenous worldviews in economic development projects?
The very nature of capitalism is its commitment to unending economic growth (which means unending resource exploitation). It doesn’t recognize limits. It is a reflection of the Western (civilized) never-ending imperative, always wanting more: more land, more growth, more money, more technology, more power. The commitment to values based on profit. This paradigm is what caused our ancestors to lose their lands and what is causing indigenous peoples in other parts of the world to lose their lands in this globalized economy. Capitalism is wrapped up in the language of civilization, disguised as the desire for a better, easier life. It is responsible for a changing climate, for increasing global poverty, human rights violations and war. It is the big trickster of our time—it is coyote in his modern day manifestation.
Capitalism as a way of life is imposed as a civilizing technique of the colonizing American government, especially during the eras of assimilation and the Indian Reorganization Act. The goals of self-government under the IRA were envisioned primarily as a business creation and management regime, tribal governments were organized as corporations. This was in response to the poverty that resulted from the miserable failure of allotment (and arguably, all the land theft and cultural disruption before that).
When the tribal governments were created they mirrored the American government not only through the boilerplate constitutions that they adopted, but also through their emphasis on economics and land ownership. Those constitutions were not rooted in indigenous traditions and worldviews but the worldviews of the Euroamerican system that imposed itself and its values on private property, rugged individualism and selfishness.
The result is an uncomfortable dichotomy ever-present in the way Indians must negotiate their worlds today. Like the poorest people in the poorest countries of the world, we all want the good life we see other Americans enjoying. In some ways the pressure is more pronounced because it is so in our face. Our poverty is accentuated by the conspicuous wealth of our neighbors. We are alienated by a system of greed not of our making.
The capitalist system is the business approach to life, not a Mitakuye Oyasin (“we are all related”) approach to life, the way we were taught by our elders. It was perhaps inevitable and beyond our control that we would get swept up into the capitalist paradigm. But now the limits to capitalism are painfully obvious.
I believe that the degree to which the human race survives the crises we now face will determine how history will be written. My hope is that we will look back and see the economic system that drives us now as just a phase of development the human race passed through to reach a more just and equitable society. Is it possible as Native people to implement a paradigm shift in our own communities by incorporating into our governments the values of respect for the natural world and economic parity? We can look to Bolivia who has constitutionalized the rights of our Mother Earth, however imperfectly it is being implemented. Can we envision a better world?
Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a freelance writer and research associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She was educated at the University of New Mexico and holds a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s degree in American Studies.