Community Dividend

A new economic era for Native communities

In remarks delivered at the 2007 South Dakota Indian Business Conference, Elsie Meeks encourages American Indians to look to the future and recognize that they cannot build sovereign, independent nations unless they have economically sovereign people.

Elsie Meeks | Executive Director

Published July 1, 2007  | July 2007 issue

The following feature is adapted from a speech given by Elsie Meeks on the opening day of the South Dakota Indian Business Conference in Rapid City last February. The conference explored how private business development and entrepreneurship can help build flourishing tribal economies.

Meeks is a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. She has dedicated most of her life to advocating for private enterprise development in reservation communities. More than 20 years ago, she cofounded The Lakota Fund, the first Native community development financial institution, or CDFI1/, in the country. She currently serves as executive director of First Nations Oweesta Corporation, a Native CDFI intermediary that provides training, technical assistance, investments, research and advocacy for the development of Native CDFIs and other support organizations in Native communities. In addition, Meeks serves as chair of the Native Financial Education Coalition and is a former member of the Federal Reserve Board's Consumer Advisory Council.

I want to start off today by declaring that I believe we are in a new era. This is a new day and a new time for Indian Country and Native communities across America!

Tribes and Native peoples have gone through difficult times; times that have brought about change for us—sometimes with good intentions, sometimes with not-so-good intentions. All the changes have had lingering effects on us as nations and individuals. There were the days in the late 1800s when we lost the freedom we had known. That, I believe, interrupted our natural road to change and development. Those were also the days when treaties were signed and reservations were established. Then there were the days of the Indian Reorganization Act, which had both good and bad effects, when we were "allowed" to develop constitutions and by-laws and govern ourselves.

Then came the 1970s—a time of activism and a time of re-establishing pride in being who we are as Native people. The 1970s also brought the Self-Determination Act, which allowed us to run our own tribal programs. Now, here we are in the twenty-first century, over 100 years since reservations were established. It has been nearly impossible for us to let go of the past due to the injustices we as Native people have endured for generations. But, as John F. Kennedy once said, "Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future." So, I suggest it is time to look to the future. I believe we must.

Opening the door to entrepreneurship

If we are brutally honest about it, we find our people and families are not well today. We have to do something to strengthen and restore the health, well-being and self-sufficiency of Native people. If our communities are to become healthy and vibrant, we must begin to think of ourselves living in a new time of hope and prosperity. It has been said that if you can believe it, you can achieve it. For too long, we have not really believed that we could (or should) achieve prosperity. It is now time to see our lives in a whole new light.

Here is my vision: I look ahead and see Native people who are self-sufficient, prosperous, healthy tribal members with the means to help themselves, their families, and the communities where they live. And they live in communities with functioning, stable governments; their public safety systems are able to provide safe environments in which to live, work and go to school; and the court systems are fair and reliable.

I've been around a while now, much longer than I want to admit. I've come to believe that it is the responsibility of tribal leaders to create opportunities and nurturing environments so our communities can take part in an ownership society and begin to build wealth. We must build ourselves into strong, self-sufficient people who can be generous with our tiospayes (extended families) and communities—a generosity that has always been central to our culture. But in today's world, to help each other, we must first help ourselves.

How do we do this? And where do we start?

I think we have to open the door as wide as we can to help our tribal members start businesses. This means we will have to create an environment that will be nurturing to entrepreneurs.

I agree with William Yellowtail, a prominent Native economic development scholar, who recently said,

Maybe I'm wrong about my notions of entrepreneurship, but even if I am, at least I would hope we can start the debate. I'm willing to be shown I'm wrong, but I want somebody to illustrate a better, more realistic path back to healthy, robust, proud Indian communities and Indian people. Part of that has to do with economics, but mostly, individual sovereignty has to do with a mindset and point of view of building your own world, charting your own destiny, being in charge of your own self, your family and your future.

I've been beating this drum for more than 20 years now. I firmly believe that private business creation by Indian people has the potential to put us in charge of our own success. It will help increase employment numbers; it will provide tribes with a greater revenue stream through sales taxes while creating other potential tax bases. And, it will take some of the heat off of tribal governments. Instead of starting businesses, all our governments will have to do is create the policies and the environment that will allow small businesses to flourish.

A ladder out of poverty

To support these assumptions, I'll highlight some findings from Native Entrepreneurship: Challenges and Opportunities for Rural Communities, a December 2004 report that CFED published with funding from the Northwest Area Foundation.2/ The report explored Native entrepreneurship in rural communities nationwide, with a focus on the eight states included in the Northwest Area Foundation's service region: Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota and Washington.

The report found that the rate of Native entrepreneurial activity is growing nationally and that entrepreneurship can help Native communities overcome poverty and achieve economic growth. Also, long before tribal gaming became a national economic development issue, Native peoples were creating and growing small businesses, both on and off reservations. The report states that gaming enterprises generated $18.5 billion in revenue in 2004. In 1997, private Native businesses had generated nearly double that, or $34.3 billion. Individual Native businesses also employed almost 300,000 people that year. To illustrate this further, from 1996 to 2006, taxable sales in Shannon County, which encompasses the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, more than doubled, from $11 million to over $24 million. A quick estimate shows that the Oglala Lakota Tribe received almost $1 million in sales tax revenue in 2006 from small businesses.

Another key finding of the CFED report is that entrepreneurship can be a ladder out of poverty and into economic stability for low-income families. A different study by the Aspen Institute found that over a period of five years, poor entrepreneurs increased their household incomes and assets by $8,500 and $16,000, respectively, and 53 percent of them moved above the poverty line.3/ The Aspen Institute report also found that many Native leaders believe culturally relevant entrepreneurship is an important economic development strategy for Native communities.

I believe, however, that Native people have always been savvy entrepreneurs. There are many examples of Native people being sharp traders. For example, consider the journals of Lewis and Clark, who encountered many, many Indian communities 200 years ago and found a robust culture of entrepreneurship that was largely founded on the personal initiative of individual Indian people.

A message of hope

William Yellowtail says, "Let's take a look at our place in the twenty-first century. Cultures evolve. Who says we need to be locked in an 1880s paradigm forever? We need to give our culture permission to evolve to be not only strong, but also functional and relevant in the twenty-first century."

This is not another short-term fix; we have tried those for a century or two and things have not gotten better. This is about creating lasting change. We cannot build sovereign, independent nations unless we have economically sovereign people. At the end of the day, it is the job of tribal leaders to provide opportunities and a nurturing environment so Native people can come to believe a message of hope. We have "sold" poverty for far too long. Let's begin selling opportunity.

1/ CDFIs are specialized entities that provide lending, investments and other financial services in economically distressed communities. For more information, visit

2/ The report’s authors are Jennifer Malkin, Brian Dabson, Kim Pate and Amy Mathews. To access the report, visit

3/ As referenced in the 2004 CFED report cited above.