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Economic Prosperity for North American Indians

The link between natural resources, institutions, and economic prosperity is nowhere more apparent than on American Indian reservations. For this reason, PERC hosted a workshop at Lewis and Clark College on “Institutions, Resource Use, and Economic Prosperity for North American Indians.”

If the scholarly papers presented at the workshop didn’t provide enough evidence of this link, Don Leal and I saw it first hand when we hunted pheasants on the Crow Reservation last weekend. Like most western reservations, the Crow has three categories of land ownership: tribal lands held in trust by the U.S. Government; individual Indian lands also held in trust; and privately owned lands. The important thing to note is that the trust lands are shrouded in layer upon layer of bureaucratic red tape. It was this bureaucracy that led to a court decision (Cobell v. Salazar) holding that the federal government pay $3.4 billion to individual Indian for violation of its fiduciary trust responsibility. How would you like the federal government to be trustee of your assets?

Moreover, trusteeship makes it impossible for tribes or individual owners to use land as collateral for loans, one of the main sources for agricultural investment. Not surprisingly, trust lands have little investment and little agricultural productivity.

Under tribal rules, Don and I could only hunt on trust lands so we took along an ownership map. Turns out the map was not necessary; we could easily tell the trust land from the private land. With only a fence running between the two, the private lands had crops, grain storage bins, barns, and so on; the trust lands had only a few cows or horses grazing on them.

PERC’s research shows that property rights are key to good resource stewardship and economic development is key to understanding why American Indians remain at the bottom of the income ladder. Stay tuned to PERC for more research on this subject.

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