The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis is creating a new Center for Indian County Development. The Minneapolis Fed, which serves the Ninth Federal Reserve District covering Montana, the Dakotas, Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, and the Michigan U.P., wants to undo the intergenerational poverty we imposed on our Indian neighbors as we rolled across the Plains:
“It’s not just that incomes have been very low on reservations for decades,” [Minneapolis Fed President Narayana] Kocherlakota said in his prepared remarks. “We now have large-scale and very current evidence of poverty persisting across generations within individual families. … This persistence represents a social and economic failure to develop the full productive and human potential of many of our children.”
…The stage for poverty among American Indians was set in the 19th century, Kocherlakota said in the speech Friday at the Federal Reserve System Community Development Research Conference. Indians were forced to move to remote areas, their cultures were suppressed, their land taken away and their affairs controlled by federal bureaucrats.
“Not surprisingly, economic development lagged on most reservations, leaving them as pockets of extreme rural poverty and underdevelopment,” Kocherlakota said [Adam Belz, “Minneapolis Fed Plans Center for Indian Reservation Development,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, 2015.04.07].
Kocherlakota has a bead on South Dakota’s four big reservations. Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock are among the 25 “commuting zones” (out of 709 in the country) with the lowest intergenerational income mobility.
Poverty clearly contributes to the despair on our reservations that leads to problems like higher suicide rates among tribal youth. Alleviating that poverty will alleviate (though not single-handedly solve) other problems. But a Minneapolis Fed report from October 2014 warns economic developers that they’ll have to take a different approach on the reservations. Experts from the Center for Indian Country Development can’t just walk in and say, “Hey! Who wants to make money?” because, unlike South Dakota’s white political leadership, a lot of Indian folks don’t put money and business über alles:
…for Native Americans growing up on reservations, suffice to say that not all decisions are financial ones. Roughly a dozen sources on the Rosebud and Cheyenne River reservations were virtually unanimous in their belief that more tribal members are returning after a spell off the reservation, most often from a spiritual calling or a duty to their tribal family.
According to [South Dakota instructor and blogger Ann-erika] White Bird, who moved from Denver, “for me, part of it is spiritual. … The one thing I really like is that capitalism isn’t the religion here. … You can figure out a way to make it, and people will help you along the way. If you are homeless and your family can’t help you, you can always go to the tribe. I appreciate that culture of generosity,” she said. Of course, not every tribal member acts in such a way, she said, “but the understanding of how we should be is still there. That’s why I live here” [Ronald A. Wirtz, “Calling Home,” Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis: FedGazette, 2014.10.22].
That focus on something other than capitalism doesn’t mean folks on the reservation won’t work with Fed experts to improve educational outcomes, housing, and job options in their community. But developers coming to the reservation need to keep in mind that important difference in worldview. The Center for Indian Country Development will need to remember that the point of their work is not simple economic development measured by dollar metrics. Instead, they must look at a larger set of values and integrate economic projects into the overall quality of life on the reservation.
But the Minneapolis Fed is trying to help, and they will bring the smartest economic experts around to help the tribes improve their people’s opportunities. Rand, don’t touch the Fed!