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Harvard Study Shows Economic Progress on Indian Reservations

  • Daniel Kraker

Tuba City, Arizona, located on the Navajo reservation, is like many towns on Indian lands. About an hour east of the Grand Canyon, it's a quiet, starkly beautiful place, surrounded by red, dusty cliffs and mesas. It's a stopping point for tourists visiting Indian Country, and the hospital and high school provide good paying jobs.

But these days, the thunder of jackhammers fills the air at the site of a new development, the first of five planned developments across the reservation.

About 40 construction workers, mostly local Navajos, are building a two-story office building and retail shopping mall. Robert Bedonie is one of them. "I'm just a hand. I'm just a temporary worker." he says, adding that he is grateful for a construction job close to home. "It pays the bills."

The project's developers include both Navajo and outside investors. They expect to have as many as 11 retail tenants by this summer. It's a modest example of how things are improving, even for remote tribes like the Navajo.

That economic progress is documented by a new study showing that -- while casinos have been a big windfall for many tribes across the country -- even the incomes of non-gaming tribes are growing at a rate three times faster than the rest of the country. "It was surprising to find that the non-gaming tribes, as well, were growing so much more rapidly than the United States as a whole," says Harvard professor Joe Kalt, one of the authors of the study.

The economist acknowledges that, despite the success of tribes, they still have a long way to go. "Even with the rapid growth of the 1990s, if it were to continue," he estimates, "it still would take almost 50 years for American Indians to catch up in terms of their incomes and quality of life with the rest of the United States."

Professor Kalt concedes that the economic picture in Indian Country is still uneven. Tuba City, for example, is still poor compared to towns bordering the Navajo reservation. The homes are small. Many are ramshackle. There are several boarded up storefronts.

The new shopping mall will create more than 100 construction and retail jobs. But Don Williamson, who's managing the project for developer , says there are many more people still looking for work. "Unfortunately the unemployment rate up here in the Tuba City area is horrendous," he says. "We see probably an average of about 30 to 35 applicants in a two-day span, so figure about 70 applicants a week. As far as actual applications on file, we have anywhere from three to four hundred applications on file."

Still, tribes like the Navajo have grown savvier when it comes to attracting new businesses and new jobs. Harvard professor Joe Kalt credits a shift in federal policy that allows tribes to make more of their own decisions.

The regional business development office in Tuba City lured Chuska-SAHARA by first acquiring the land for the mall and then installing utilities for it. The company's managing partner, Larry Manuelito, a tribal member, says the business climate has improved on the Navajo reservation in recent years, but many developers are still wary of the bureaucracy. "I think people are afraid of all the regulations that are in place," he suggests. "You've got to comply with government regulations. You're faced with land status. When these kinds of things pop up, a lot of people right away immediately just say, 'Well you know what, maybe I'm not interested.' They want something that's very simple, easy and clean cut."

While the Tuba City project is steadily taking shape, it has definitely not been clean cut. It took three years to persuade the tribal government and outside investors to back it. But that hasn't discouraged the Navajo Nation, which has even loftier ambitions for business development. The tribe is expected to break ground on its first casino later this year.

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