Indigenous Cooperatives Fuel Economic Development

Minnesota Indian Business Alliance’s Quarterly Meeting held June 19, 2018 (Courtesy MNIBA)

As the casino market sector approaches saturation, tribes are now faced with seeking new tools for their economic development toolkit. One promising approach is indigenous cooperatives.

According to the International Statement of Cooperative Identity, “A cooperative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise.”

Though the notion of cooperative economies is not new – even in Indian Country – their use in largely capitalist economies such as the United States and Canada, is nascent. Groups have historically leveraged “combine and conquer” tactics to take advantage of unserved or underserved gaps in markets. Tribes themselves were early traders and worked together to provide goods to not only to other tribes, but to those that ventured into their geographic area.

A cooperative economy, as defined by Cultivate.Coop, is a highly idealistic yet pragmatic economic system comprised of individuals and groups that enjoin “…specific operating principles and embrace …explicit values…to “…meet their basic needs in personally, socially, and environmentally responsible ways.” The principles and structure of modern coops generally derive from the Rochdale Pioneer Society in England, which is widely cited as the first “modern” coop. Its cooperative values still shared by emerging coops around the world – self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity – and are embedded in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility, and caring for others. Coops operationalize both via seven critical principles: 1) voluntary and open membership, 2) democratic member control, 3) member economic participation, 4) autonomy and independence, 5) education, training, and information, 6) cooperation among cooperatives, and 7) concern for community.

So, how is this playing out in Indian Country? Enter the Minnesota Indian Business Alliance (MNIBA), author and publisher of the first guide to Tribal Community Co-Operative Development.

With easy money from casino operations in severe decline, MNIBA now offers co-operative guidance and training to create economically, socially, and politically sustainable communities to tribes, their members, and their communities. MNIBA’s ultimate goal is to assist tribes in developing “ways to circulate financial resources as frequently as possible within their communities,…” and to stop the bleed of dollars outside of their communities. Pamela Standing, MNIBA Co-Chair, clearly believes that one of the solutions to promote the economic security that will allow tribes to be and remain sovereign and independent is to implement economic development programs that create a multiplier effect, that is, the number of times a dollar will circulate in the community it is spent in.

Because tribal values and co-operative values generally align so neatly, Standing believes that cooperative economies offer tribes more opportunities for business development than chasing casinos. Moreover, she notes, the tribal value of “not taking more than needed” underwrites sustainability more than current economic models adopted by tribes. But, in the United States, tribes have been reluctant until now to pursue alternative economic development models.

“We have lost the process of consensus in our communities,” Standing laments. “I look at Canada and am amazed at the length they are involved in cooperatives. MNIBA has been observing the growth and evolution of cooperatives in Canada because First Nation communities are so remote they have to work together cooperatively to survive, and because of the longevity and sustainability their cooperatives have demonstrated – some dating back to the 1940s. First Nations cooperate “because they don’t have the financial resources,” according to Standing.

While it is true that tribes do participate in cooperates in the United States, there is not enough data to determine the scope of their impact on tribal communities yet.

Worse, the governmental institutions and budget that tribes depend on are becoming depleted as the number of tribes is increasing, setting us up for competition for increasingly scarce funds. In contrast, Standing sees a system the Creator made for us as an abundant one. “Look at the design in nature that reproduces and replenishes. You plant a seed of corn, and multiple ears of corn on a stalk come up.” Tribes need to focus more on that abundance and inject some creativity and cooperation – some “indiangenuity” – into the mix to utilize that abundance without exhausting it, she states.

So far MNIBA has identified 51 tribal cooperatives, but has not determined all that remain in existence. Hopefully, future research will provide more insight into the existing structure. For now, MNIBA is bringing the concept of cooperatives back into tribal community conversations while seeking ways to assist new and existing cooperatives become sustainable entities. As in the 1800s when the Rochdale Pioneer Society formed, most cooperatives are built around artisans – artists, agricultural products, construction and the like. Current cooperative projects have expanded to included services such as daycare. It is MNIBA’s goal to leverage the trust of tribes and critical community stakeholders that already know them and induce capacity by providing wraparound services: education, knowledge, and mentorship in law, finance, and business management along with institutional features that are sustainable within the community.

At the end of the day, though, the onus for success rests on the cooperative itself. As independent, self-governing bodies, MNIBA and others interested in cooperative formation can only foster tribal and individual tribal member efforts. The impetus must come from the stakeholders. “We can always find money for what we really want,” Standing explains. In other words, tribes, members, and community partners are responsible for their own success. While groups like MNIBA and Cultivate.Coop can offer an assist, that is difficult when few US universities or colleges offer business courses on cooperative economy. But, proponents of the cooperative movement are sanguine on the ability of tribes, tribal members, and their communities to create self-sustaining cooperatives within the dog-eat-dog world of global capitalism.

For more information see The Minnesota Indian Business Alliance, Cultivate.Coop, and The International Cooperative Alliance.