By Tonya McMurray
An increasingly diversified economy and a historical infusion of federal money have created a promising outlook for Native communities, said Chris James, president and CEO of The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, or The National Center.
“Like any community, Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians face uncertainty created by inflation, unrest in Europe and supply-chain disruptions,” he said. “That being said, I’m bullish on our future — in large part, because we’ve made so much progress in recent years and are well-suited to overcome any obstacle in our way.
“Our economies are becoming increasingly diverse,” James continued. “Tribes and tribal entities are no longer dependent on one single sector or source for their revenue and are thus less susceptible to severe disruption.”
Economic diversification has been a key focus for The National Center to create a stronger foundation for tribal communities. Native communities will be strengthened even more by an unprecedented investment of federal money that will create new opportunities, while addressing longstanding problems.
“Never before has so much money been invested in our communities, and it goes beyond what we think of as traditional infrastructure,” James said. “The 2020 CARES [Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security] Act and other COVID-relief legislation also made monumental investments in Indian Country. These federal dollars recognized both the tremendous need and the tremendous opportunity in our community. The infrastructure bill — and the subsequent Inflation Reduction Act — are no different, and there’s a lot of excitement about their potential. Of course, we also want to make sure the money is spent wisely and efficiently.”
The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act included $15 billion for tribal infrastructure. The Build Back Better Budget reconciliation bill will add $13 billion for Indian Country, while the 2021 American Rescue Act earmarked $31 billion for tribes.
The federal spending is targeted to address historical inequities on tribal lands with money dedicated to clean drinking water, high-speed internet, repairing roads and bridges and tackling legacy pollution. The funds will also provide support for cybersecurity, climate-change initiatives and upgrades to the electrical power infrastructure.
“If you look at how the money is allocated, it’s a clear indication of how far many of our communities still have to go to be on par with other parts of the U.S. We are now in the third decade of the 21st century, and we’re still talking about clean drinking water, cellular coverage and basic broadband internet services on reservations and other Native communities,” James said.
“The infrastructure investments will go a long way to solving these issues and making it possible for more Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians to thrive in the places where they were born and their families have called home for generations,” he added.
James said the federal money also promises to create economic advantages for Native communities.
“While the country is experiencing an unprecedentedly good labor market, unemployment is still high in some Native communities,” he said. “The construction associated with the various buildouts will be a huge and immediate economic driver. Long term, I am confident these upgrades will be nothing short of a game-changer — even transformative. The job for organizations like The National Center and others is to make sure the money makes it to the communities that need it the most, and the work is done by qualified Native contractors.”
To learn more about The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, visit ncaied.org.