During colonial times, Native warriors—men and women—defended and advocated for their peoples and homelands. Although today the number of American Indians and homelands to defend are much smaller, we are, nonetheless, visible and potent. From the 1950s through the Civil Rights era, intrepid and inspired Native people coined the term Red Power and fought to remind Washington, D.C., policymakers that we were still here and that a seat at the table was an inherent right for Native peoples and Native nations. Today, recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples informs global policy, along with popular notions of our shared obligations to the planet we all call home. The United States has seemingly reached some zenith of technological innovation and economic prosperity and, yet, Native nations lack access to critical public infrastructure, and many remain the most impoverished communities, even by global standards. Today, tribal nations are offering solutions and setting examples for tribes in the quest for equitable access to resources needed for the health and well-being of their communities.
Native people have always adapted to their surroundings. Current day adaptations require modifying tools designed for poverty-stricken inner cities, not tribal communities. These tools have been in use for at least 30 years and are a far cry from federal grant- and entitlement programs of decades past. These tools treat public-sector grant funds as seed capital and magnify the funds’ impact by leveraging non-federal financing. These programs include a broad range of tax credits and federal loan guarantees, as well as equity capital and other investment opportunities. Native organizations and individuals responsible for such accomplishments take pride in the projects built and say things such as, “This isn’t your typical government project; it’s high-quality materials and construction—the same as one might find in any off-reservation development.”
Caption: Picuris Pueblo built a net-zero-energy fire station for its remote community. A combination of grants and loans with government guarantees, as well as support from the Southwest Native Green Loan Fund, were key elements for assembling the funds necessary for this state-of-the-art green building. [Photo Courtesy Northern Pueblos’ Housing Authority]
For political or practical reasons, some still dismiss the idea of using private-sector resources and debt capital to impact economically distressed communities. Although the political argument for maintaining the federal government’s liability, owing to its Trust responsibility and treaty obligations, is worth noting, the idea of not using such tools because of their complexity must be dismissed. Over the almost 20 years I’ve worked in tribal community and economic development, the difficulty associated with applying market solutions to communities that lack formal (capitalist) market economies has been raised many times. Elected tribal leaders, practitioners and professionals working on tribal economic development continue to have to deal with federal, state and local issues that make rebuilding Indian Nations a complex endeavor. These range from restrictive, federal land-use regulations—stemming from the Trust status of reservation lands across most of Indian Country—to blatantly hostile state governments and reluctant private-sector financial institutions. When the battle against such obstacles seems the most daunting, it’s helpful to remind ourselves of the battles of the past, some of which Indian people continue to fight.
The last armed conflict between an Indian Nation and a foreign power was in 1917 on what is now the Crow Reservation in Montana. Yet, the potential for armed conflict remains. Most recently, in the Southwest, disputed political boundaries imposed by the United States have escalated conflicts between the Navajo and Hopi tribes. Not long ago, an elderly Native American grandmother clutched a hunting rifle—in questionable shape but in use nevertheless—to defy removal from the land of her ancestors to satisfy the solutions arrived at by politicians. The situation remains much worse for our relatives in other parts of the Americas. I was in Perú not a year after a confrontation between tribal men, women, children and elders from the Amazon region, who were defying petroleum exploration by multinational corporations in the last remaining vestiges of traditional hunting and fishing grounds of multiple South American tribes. To quell that uprising, paramilitary forces, donned in body armor, entered in armored personnel carriers with U.S.-made M-4s and M-16s. The Indians never had a chance, but they chose to fight anyway.
Caption: Men from Amazon tribes assemble to confront paramilitary forces under the auspices of the Peruvian government at the height of a dispute between tribes and petroleum-exploration companies on tribal lands. [Photo Credit: Comunidad Andina]
Fortunately, today, most Indian people in the United States do not face such stark battles. Except for the devastating social ills that disproportionately affect our families and community members, the challenges most of us face in rebuilding our communities range from study of the dull and mundane to the mildly interesting—unless, of course, you have a finance or accounting background. Instead of identifying the most potent battle tactic, we must master I.R.S. regulations. Perhaps, we must travel to cold or balmy localities, stay at mere three-star resorts for multiple days of coursework or workshops to learn about topics such as power-purchase agreements and lease buy-back arrangements for renewable-energy projects on tribal lands. The most committed of our colleagues will stay up through the wee hours of the morning perfecting their cash-flow projections and pro forma budgets to satisfy the requirements of a dreaded case study that tests our knowledge of the previous day’s course on development financing fundamentals. As a former tribal economic-development manager, I withstood the ire of tribal council members, tribal landowners and political appointees over why one project or another must oblige one financing provision or another. None of these challenges is easy or fun to deal with. Yet, if a grandma from a stark desert landscape and outgunned rainforest dwellers are willing to take up arms today, shouldn’t we be willing to pick up a travel itinerary, a pen and a laptop? Today’s Red Power movement may not be as glamorous as the images of the warriors of centuries past, or even the nostalgia of Wounded Knee and Alcatraz in the 1970s, but it could be the most important challenge we embrace for the generations that follow us. For those of you who are game, I’ll see you at the next training session or project meeting!
Caption: Tribal leaders, program managers and community members assemble to learn about underutilized resources available from public-, private- and nonprofit-sector entities at the annual Resource Forum convened by the Multi-Agency Tribal Infrastructure Collaborative. [Photo Credit: HUD SWONAP]
Dave Castillo is CEO of a Native Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI). When not traveling around the Southwest discussing financing options for Native businesses and tribal projects, he’s working on the latest reporting requirements of federal agencies or the return expectations of foundations and investors. He is always happy to collaborate or commiserate with anyone working to navigate the currents of project development in Indian Country. email@example.com