Robert J. Miller: Diversify to Recession-Proof Native Economies

“We need diversification to be more recession proof,” argues Robert J. Miller, a citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe and Professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.

Robert J. Miller, a citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe, insists that Native Americans need to find their way home economically by returning to their cultural roots as self-sufficient and thriving entrepreneurs. Harnessing the private sector is a pivotal avenue to economic diversification and sustainability, he says: unique Native-owned businesses creating jobs and recirculating dollars within a community. 

A professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, Miller is highly regarded throughout Indian Country and beyond as the author of the 2012 book Reservation “Capitalism”:  Economic Development in Indian Country.

The book’s premise? Historically, Native communities were prosperous. By driving sustainable economic development on reservations, Indian Country can not only achieve self-sufficiency — the very act sustains Native lives and cultures.

In Reservation Capitalism, Miller puts it point-blank: “Waiting for the federal government…has not been a successful strategy for the past 200 years and is not going to change in the future….” 

His solution? Look to our ancestors. 

Miller posits that our Indigenous ancestors lived a short economic year, preserved surpluses, and lived winters out at home doing crafts — all of which point to the management of excess, or capital. 

“So, if we revive old practices, where does that take us?” he wondered out loud in conversation with Native Business. 

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What’s the remedy to poverty-stricken reservations?  

Pursuing cross-sector economic development and keeping money and resources in Indian Country. The latter requires a private sector to prevent off-reservation leakage while creating opportunity for a dollar to exchange hands at least seven times over before leaving Indian Country. 

“Self-sufficiency is self-determination,” Miller argues. “We need diversification to be more recession proof. We need to develop human capital.”

Miller continues: “We need everything to capture money and leverage the multiplier effect. But we’re on a learning curve. We’ve lived a welfare mentality for a hundred years relying on the United States and that’s a joke. They took our lands and resources, so we need to develop alternatives and keep them in Indian Country.”

But how do we accomplish this? 

“It is long overdue for Indian peoples and governments to revive their traditional institutions that promoted and protected private economic activities, and to look to their historical roots and traditions of individual Indian and Indian family economic development efforts,” Miller states in his article “Sovereign Resilience: Reviving Private Sector Economic Institutions in Indian Country.” 

Miller asserts that the solution lies primarily in Tribes reviving private entrepreneurship, because, historically, we were entrepreneurs before we were stripped of our land and resources. 

“Creating private sector economies on reservations will take the intelligent and coordinated efforts of Tribal governments, Indian individuals, reservation communities, the United States, and non-profit organizations,” Miller tells Native Business. “Indian Nations and Indians will have to revive their private business skills, their legal regimes to promote and protect private economic activities, and their historic support for reservation based entrepreneurs and businesses.” 

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His summary in “Sovereign Resilience” perhaps sums it up best: 

“Developing private sector economies, in addition to Tribal public sector economies, will help create economic diversification on reservations, new businesses and jobs, protect from economic downturns, slow the ‘brain drain’; that all rural areas suffer, and promote more spending which will help Indian country benefit from the ‘multiplier effect’ as more and more money is spent, and re-spent, on reservations.”