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There are Compelling
Governmental Reasons

Self government matters, Harvard economic study finds

A 13-year study of indigenous nations in the United States has found economic success is closely linked to the power to make decisions.

Dr. Stephen Cornell, co-author of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, says their research has yet to find a single case in the United States of sustained economic activity on indigenous lands in which some government body other than the indigenous nation itself is making the decisions about government structure, natural resource use, internal civil affairs and development strategies.

The economic research has found four critical factors for success:
1. Jurisdiction (self government) matters.
2. Effective governing institutions are necessary.
3. Governing institutions must be appropriate to the people.
4. The indigenous nation must have a strategic orientation.

Speaking to the Treaty Commission conference, Speaking Truth to Power III, on self government, Cornell said jurisdiction matters because, “it puts the development agenda and control of the necessary resources in indigenous hands.

“Without jurisdiction, indigenous nations are subject to other people’s agenda. You can’t ask people to be accountable if you don’t give them decision-making power. Whoever is making the decisions has the accountability. Jurisdiction marries decisions to consequences, which leads to better decisions.”

The second critical factor, not surprisingly, is that good government is essential to economic success.  Cornell said governments establish and enforce the rules of the game. “Those rules send a message to investors – everybody from some person thinking of taking a job in the nation’s government to someone thinking of starting a small business on reserve land – and the message is either, ‘Do or don’t invest here’.”

Thirdly, the governing institution must be culturally appropriate and have the support of the people.

“Institutions that match contemporary indigenous cultures are more successful than those that don’t,” said Cornell. “On the other hand, there is no blank cheque: institutions have to perform. We’ve seen nations who have admitted their traditional way of doing things isn’t up to the challenges they currently face, but that doesn’t mean they just grab a set of institutions off the shelf…it means they spend some hard time trying to invent new institutions that they believe in and that are capable of getting the job done.”

The fourth factor for success is strategic orientation. A strategic orientation “encourages politicians to serve the nation instead of themselves because there is an explicit sense of what it is the nation is trying to do.”

Across the United States, Cornell and colleague Joseph Kalt found many examples of Indian nations succeeding in building sustainable, self-determined economies.

In a systematic examination of 75 Indian nations in the United Sates with timber resources, the researchers found that for every job that moved from Bureau of Indian Affairs management to indigenous management, profits and profitability rose.  The researchers found similar indications of effectiveness and efficiency in housing and in the gaming market.

Other examples of economic success include the Mississippi Choctaws who, on five small pieces of fragmented land, today import labour. Every day about 5,000 workers drive on to Choctaw land to take jobs in Choctaw-owned and -operated industries.

Another example is the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in Oklahoma. This is a Nation that today has close to 20,000 people. In 1975 they had 12 acres of land and $500 in the bank. Today they own the First National Bank of Shawnee, Oklahoma and they are the economic engine of that mixed-race region.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes of the Flathead Reservation in northwest Montana run a tribal college that gets applications from non-Indian people because it provides the highest quality education in that part of the state.

Kalt, in testimony before the United States Senate said, “You would not be surprised if I pointed out that eastern Europe was unlikely to develop economically as long as the major decisions about its future were being made in Moscow. Why would you be surprised then if I were to tell you that Indian country is not going to develop economically as long as the major decisions about its future are being made in Washington, DC? It’s the same principle. Yield decision-making power.”

Based on their research, Cornell’s advice to the governments of Canada and British Columbia is to yield decision-making power and support indigenous jurisdiction. “Take nation building seriously. This is not about building administrative capacities.”

Cornell concluded his presentation by saying, “I’ve been very struck in the visits I’ve made to British Columbia by the opportunities offered by the treaty process. When I first heard about it, the discussions were often about claims. But the more I’ve looked at that process, the more it has struck me that the process has enormous nation building and constitutional potential…This is one place where nation building is, in fact, taking place, perhaps intentionally, perhaps in some cases inadvertently. It’s where people are rethinking what their governments should look at, where they’re asserting power. That strikes me as an enormously encouraging development…”


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