Carmen Davis Reflects on the Foundations of Native Economy: Land, Water & Infrastructure

In our weekly “From the Editor,” Native Business Executive Editor Carmen Davis (Makah/Chippewa-Cree/Yakama) reflects on the foundational components of Native economy: land, water and resource rights, and infrastructure.  

“Everything in US history is about the land—who oversaw and cultivated it, fished its waters, maintained its wildlife; who invaded and stole it; how it became a commodity (“real estate”) broken into pieces to be bought and sold on the market.” —Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States

It all comes back to the land.

Tribal Nations protect, preserve, restore and revitalize the land through stewardship and investing in infrastructure to support thriving communities. 

Take the Gila River Indian Community for example. The Tribe has a deep relationship with the water that flows through the Valley of the Sun. The Community traces its roots to the Hohokam — the Indigenous people who inhabited the Phoenix basin along the Gila and Salt Rivers for over 1,400 years. 

“Their ancient canal system is one of the most sophisticated architectural engineering feats that rivals even the Egyptian canals of the Nile Valley,” Stephen Roe Lewis, Governor of the Gila River Indian Community, told Native Business. 

READ MORE: Infrastructure and Tribal Resistance to Catastrophe: How the Hohokam Survived

Today the Community is involved in a massive federal, state, local and Tribal project known as Rio Reimagined, a U.S. EPA-designated Urban Waters Federal Partnership (UWFP) that serves to rejuvenate the Rio Salado through ecosystem restoration, flood mitigation and economic development. 

The Hohokam are responsible for the Valley’s life-giving waters in an arid desert. The cross-government initiative Rio Reimagined seeks to revive the kind of sustainable ecosystem and riverfront development first birthed by the Hohokam.  

READ MORE: Rio Reimagined to Revitalize Rivers & Spur Economic Growth in the Valley of the Sun 

“Restoring these rivers will not only reconnect people to these areas, but help promote important conservation goals and provide economic revitalization opportunities along the Salt River and southern Phoenix,” Governor Lewis said. 

While the sovereign water rights of the Gila River Indian Community are respected today, that wasn’t always the case. It’s been an upstream battle for the Community for centuries. The Gila River — the Tribe’s lifeblood — was diverted more than 150 years ago, causing the Community’s agriculture-based economy to collapse, and they were pushed almost to the edge of extinction. It wasn’t until 2004 that their water rights were restored. 

And unfortunately, much of Indian Country is still fighting for and defending our land and water rights — from our inherent right to a landbase to our natural resources.

The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara (MHA) Nation currently has a lawsuit pending against the U.S. Department of the Interior over its right to the resources beneath the Missouri riverbed, where it flows across the Fort Berthold Reservation. 

For nearly 80 years, the federal government has affirmed the MHA Nation’s property rights to this stretch of riverbed and the minerals below it. But on May 26, Interior Solicitor Daniel Jorjani overturned several precedents, including an Interior decision that has stood since 1936. The Tribe sued the Trump Administration on July 15th to prohibit the illegal stripping of its property rights. 

In August, North Dakota filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit. Why? More than $100 million in unpaid royalties and future payments await to be claimed from oil drilling beneath the MIssouri River bed. The Tribe recently condemned North Dakota for its efforts to step in.  

“MHA Nation has a long history of standing up to deception, greed and broken promises, and we will continue to stand firmly in the truth,” said Mark N. Fox, Chairman of the MHA Nation. 

READ MORE: MHA Nation Condemns North Dakota’s ‘Greed-Based’ Efforts to Intervene in Lawsuit 

So much energy and resources are expended on fighting and remaining on defense. 

If our lands and sovereign rights weren’t constantly at threat, more time and funds could be allocated toward building more economic and financial infrastructure to benefit our people and surrounding communities. It leaves the vast majority of us across Indian Country wondering: Why is it so necessary for governmental authorities to continue to unleash a barrage of attacks against indigenous peoples on a whim? Oftentimes in direct contradiction to the treaties, legal and binding agreements, which were entered into and are supposed to be the “law of the land” — as if they never existed and are inconsequential. The realization is this: The Indian wars are still being fought today; just not with calvary horses and rifles, but rather with an array of state and federal administrative and policy attacks that often have the same unprovoked and stifling impact of those early morning military raids that our ancestors had to endure. When will enough be enough?

READ MORE: Haaland Addresses Infrastructure in Indian Country During National Transportation Conference Keynote 

In spite of ongoing attacks, Indian Country continues to pursue economy-reviving initiatives. Native Business featured a couple this week.

SAGE Development Authority, the first public power authority owned by a single Native Nation in the United States, is preparing to build a utility-scale wind farm on the Standing Rock Reservation.

The 235-megawatt wind farm will support the Tribe’s essential needs such as schools, roads, health care and housing development on a reservation strapped with a 40 percent poverty rate and an unemployment rate of 70 percent. 

Aptly named Anpetu Wi, Lakota for “the breaking of the new day,” the renewable energy project aspires to do just that — invite the dawning of a new economic era for the Tribal Nation.   

READ MORE: SAGE, Standing Rock-Owned Public Power Authority, to Develop Wind Farm 

Meanwhile, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe is building its first-ever master-planned community on its reservation southwest of Tucson. Called “Yaqui Square,” it aims to stimulate the reservation economy. The project will enhance quality of living, while generating a workforce and attracting local business development. 

When residents live and work in their communities, they recirculate dollars locally rather than leaking money to border towns. Economy requires a dollar exchange hands seven times over before leaving.

READ MORE: Master-Planned Community Coming to Pascua Yaqui Reservation 

As I said earlier, it all comes back to the land and our resources. Indian Country has been honoring, preserving, cultivating and replenishing our lands, water and natural resources since time immemorial. When our sovereign rights and agency are respected, we inherently know how to flourish. But it is hard to thrive, grow and live in peace when unprovoked war is constantly being waged against you.

Our ancestors demonstrated self-sufficiency and innovation through infrastructure, and despite the myriad challenges and attacks we may face, we carry those qualities with us now and into the future. The infrastructure we build today empowers generations to come. The war rages on.

Onward!

Carmen Davis is a proud Native American woman and member of the Makah Nation and also from the Chippewa-Cree and Yakama Tribes. She is extremely devoted to her culture and has spent her professional and personal life impacting Native communities across North America. Carmen is the Founder, Publisher and Executive Editor of Native Business Magazine, president of Davis Strategy Group and owner of the Native Style clothing brand.
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