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Many Native nations in North America today are pursuing economic development for their communities. However there is a lot of confusion about what economic development is and a tendency to view the term as referring only to capitalist economic activity.
We have a broad conception of economic development. To us, it refers to the process of improving the welfare of a community or a people by enhancing economic activity. This is a priority for most of the leaders—elected and otherwise—of Native nations that we work with in both the United States and Canada. They are typically concerned about two things (among many others): the poverty of their peoples (as one Navajo leader said, ‘poverty is not a Navajo tradition’) and their dependence on monies from federal and provincial or state governments—a dependence that severely constrains their choices. One tribal leader in the U.S. told us that he believed Indian nations were owed far more money than the U.S. government would ever pay them for the land they took. But, he said, in his experience, ‘every federal dollar is a leash around my neck.’ His nation wants to be able to support itself without depending on federal dollars because they see that as the key to their freedom to rebuild their communities in their own ways—not in the ways that Washington or some other outsider might impose. Economic development, to him, is ‘my freedom program.’ He looks for ways to expand economic activity on the lands of his nation, hoping both to provide citizens with opportunities to lead productive and satisfying lives and to support a strong and independent government for his people.