Huffpost Media
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

David Kimelberg Headshot

Appropriating Native Economies: When Is Enough, Enough?

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

When is enough, enough? Native Americans have been asking this question for centuries. The answer is clear, at least as it relates to the systematic and unrelenting quest to strip Native communities of their lands, sovereignty and access to economic recovery: It's never enough.

The latest salvo in this unyielding attack is highlighted in, and furthered by, a recent series of Washington Post articles by Robert O'Harrow. In his skewed and context-deficient articles, Mr. O'Harrow targets Alaska Native Corporations, entities created by the U.S. government to help settle historic land and other claims by Alaska Natives. ANCs were sold to Alaska Natives as a way to build their economic futures. Overnight, their indigenous rights and claims were transformed into shares of corporations. The quid pro quo was giving up tremendously valuable resources, as the U.S. sought to acquire hundreds of millions of acres of oil-rich land to meet its burgeoning energy needs. Implicit in this exchange was a responsibility of the U.S. government to assist the ANCs in building their economies, so that their shareholders, Alaska Natives, might be able to escape the grinding poverty crippling many of their communities. This responsibility is similar to the U.S.'s relationship with Indian Nations, and its fundamental obligation to honor treaties guaranteeing crucial rights.

Mr. O'Harrow, both explicitly and implicitly, complains about the ability of ANCs to participate in a level-setting federal contracting initiative administered by the Small Business Administration. Under this initiative, known as the "8(a) program," companies owned by economically-disadvantaged minority individuals can access procurement channels in an effort to help level the playing field in the often relationship-driven world of federal contracting. ANCs, Indian Nations and Native Hawaiian Organizations also have this ability as the faces of Native community groups and sovereign nations. The 8(a) program is one of the few real opportunities available to ANCs, Indian Nations and NHOs to help better their poverty-challenged communities, arguably the most disadvantaged people in the U.S. Because the 8(a) program views Indian Nations and Native Hawaiian Organizations as essentially the same as ANCs, Mr. O'Harrow's attacks against ANCs are leveled against all Native communities.

As an enrolled citizen of the Seneca Nation of Indians, who works every day to help try to bring economic sustainability to our people, it saddens me to witness yet another assault on our efforts to rise above the effects of generational poverty created by years of governmental oppression. Our lands were stripped away. Our people were killed in a systematic removal process sponsored by governments offering cash for dead Indians. We were corralled onto tiny "reservations," where we were expected to adapt almost overnight to foreign systems and values. In the face of all this, we've persevered. We're still here, fighting to be self-sufficient and retain our priceless sovereignty as a people. However, outside forces often conspire to turn this uphill battle into a sheer cliff. We constantly face attempts to strip us of our remaining resources and opportunities, as state and federal governments consistently remind us that enough is never enough.

The Seneca Nation has experienced this onslaught in spades. We retained tiny pieces of our original lands as the U.S. steamrolled over our communities. In the 1960s, despite our reliance on sacred treaty promises that it would never take more land, the U.S. built the Kinzua Dam, which put much of our territory literally underwater and resulted in the forcible relocation of many of our people. Just this year, the U.S. passed the PACT Act, which was purposefully designed to eviscerate the Seneca Nation's successful tobacco industry, an industry that employed and supported thousands of people. It's no secret that big tobacco corporations maneuvered and manipulated legislative backrooms to guarantee the passage of the PACT Act, as they quickly reacted to Indians taking slivers of their precious market share. And now, as we begin to enter the federal contracting space in an effort to build a sustainable and diversified economy, we're hit by broadside attacks like Mr. O'Harrow's.

Mr. O'Harrow focuses on exceptions to prove the rule. Potential for abuse is inherent in any governmental system. To focus on a small number of isolated cases, however, just isn't fair. His facts are selective. Many of his statements are opinion-laden and conveniently ignore important counterpoints. For example, Mr. O'Harrow attempts to characterize the contracts that ANCs receive as outsized. However, he doesn't point out that ANCs, Indian Nations and Native Hawaiian Organizations combined receive less than 1.3 percent of all contracting dollars. He also tries to paint ANCs as cornering the market on sole-source government contracts. Again, he fails to put this into context. Just this year, Boeing received a single-source contract totaling $11.9 billion -- more than twice what ANCs earned last year on a collective basis.

Mr. O'Harrow also takes issue with the fact that Native companies hire some Non-Natives to help build operations. I am the first person to advocate for more Natives in leadership positions. We're getting there, but it takes time. After years of forced boarding schools, substandard educational systems and efforts to marginalize our communities, we're making great strides to build our business acumen while staying true to our traditions, culture and ways. As a Native educated in the "outside" world, it's a privilege and honor for me to have the opportunity to come back to my nation to help further its economy. There are many others like me, and many more who work day-to-day to build the skills necessary to advance our nations within an environment with different systems and values. It's a challenge to walk in two worlds, and it's foolhardy to expect these important skills to be developed overnight on a broad scale. Our Native companies generate the funds necessary to continue to send our children to school and prepare for our collective future. It takes time to do this in a systematic way.

Many new rules previously proposed by the SBA are designed to deal with the potential for abuse that Mr. O'Harrow highlights, rules that many ANCs, Indian Nations and other Native groups support. However, Mr. O'Harrow uses a broad brush as he attempts to paint all ANCs (and by association, Indian Nations and Native Hawaiian Organizations) with the color of a few self-selected, and non-representative, examples. To not put these isolated examples in the overall context of a necessary program that has demonstrably helped struggling Native communities is both inappropriate and irresponsible. Enough is enough.

David Kimelberg is an enrolled citizen (Bear clan) of the Seneca Nation of Indians. He is the CEO of Seneca Holdings LLC, the investment arm of the Seneca Nation, and the founder of nativeinvestment.com, an online forum and blog about economic development in Indian Country. His views are his own and not necessarily those of the Seneca Nation of Indians or Seneca Holdings.