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The Role of Data in Building Vibrant Tribal Economies

November 30, 2022  • Financial Security Program

While it’s nice to believe that love makes the world go ‘round, it is actually data. Data is the north star by which government and private sector leaders make decisions, the guiding force behind who gets access to resources critical to healthy, thriving communities. Data is the lingua franca of investors and policymakers. This is why today’s lack of publicly available business and economic data about tribal communities is concerning, but not surprising.

The historical misuse of tribal data in other contexts, like the study of tribal health issues, has generated mistrust about sharing tribal data more broadly. When members of the Havasupai Tribe asked an Arizona State University Professor to collect blood samples from tribal members to look for a genetic link to diabetes in an attempt by the tribe to learn why rates of diabetes were increasing among tribal members, researchers didn’t identify a genetic link. However, they continued using the blood samples to research and publish articles on incest, alcoholism, and other subjects that violated informed consent, according to the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics.

Today, as tribes seek to strengthen their economies, this lack of business and economic data stands out. “Without good data sets, we are unable to articulate fully the needs of our tribal communities, address the barriers to meeting those needs, and evaluate the results of the economic development activities in a methodical, longitudinal fashion,” says Chief Lynn Malerba, US Treasurer and the lifetime Chief of the Mohegan Tribe.

For example, in 2020 Federal officials were unable to determine the total debt of tribally-owned enterprises. This greatly complicated the officials’ efforts to ensure that the lending facilities they created to support businesses grappling with the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic would be large enough to accommodate tribal enterprises, which suffered dramatic losses during the pandemic.

Policy solutions are one area where a dearth of economic data has an impact. Business opportunities are another. Absent data, it is difficult to make the business case for investment in tribal communities—a point emphasized in a recent Wells Fargo report: Indian Country’s once-in-a-seven generation opportunity.

“Tribal communities are economically invisible.  If we can develop tribal business and economic data reporting that accommodates tribal data sovereignty considerations, this solution could attract more investment in businesses that focus on Indian Country,” says Dawson Her Many Horses, head of Native American Banking for Wells Fargo and enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota.

The Center for Indian Country Development (CICD) based at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis has identified accurate and timely Indian Country data as an urgent priority and is one of a growing number of stakeholders working to address data gaps.

“Strong partnerships and data collaborations that advance Indian Country priorities are central to supporting tribal data sovereignty,” says Casey Lozar, director of CICD and a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

CICD has identified inadequate sample sizes, mismatched geographies, and Indian Country’s unique characteristics as challenges to supplying the necessary data. CICD has also worked with partners to identify principles for research and data use intended to honor tribal data sovereignty and governance in data collection and research, critical issues that must be the highest priority for any work involving tribal data.

“Increasingly, there is a movement towards data sovereignty, recognizing that if data are to be collected, the evaluation of that data needs to occur through an indigenous lens and there should be a defined benefit to the tribal people,” says Chief Malerba. She cites the Global Indigenous Data Alliance and the United States Indigenous Data Sovereignty Network as part of the growing movement to identify policy frameworks for collecting data and conducting research in indigenous communities.

There are ways to increase the availability of tribal business and economic data while preserving tribal privacy and sovereignty, as evidenced by the work of the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC), the regulator for Native American gaming. Every year, NIGC collects revenue data for every tribally-owned casino in the United States. The Commission then aggregates and publishes that data in an annual revenue report in a way that both respects tribal confidentiality while also providing stakeholders with information that is not only important to understanding the industry in real-time but also makes clear the very real and substantial economic power of tribal governments and entities. Creating similar reports for other industries in which tribes are active would showcase tribal economic strength and could also help to catalyze opportunities for tribal economic growth.

Increasing the availability of select tribal data not only benefits tribal communities. It is also a step towards creating a more inclusive financial system, defined by the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program as one that provides everyone with the ability to access, utilize and reap the benefits of a full suite of financial services that facilitate stability, resilience, and long-term financial security. Inclusive financial systems are critical to increasing individual financial well-being, reducing economic inequality, and creating stronger and more resilient economies. Importantly, inclusive financial systems are also better able to provide to a wider range of enterprises, including tribal ventures, the capital needed for community and economic growth and resiliency.

During this Native American Heritage Month, tribal leaders are meeting with policymakers and private sector leaders, including at the annual White House Tribal Nation’s Summit. We hope that the agenda includes discussions of the importance of both tribal sovereignty and increased tribal economic and business data.  By prioritizing tribal sovereignty, policymakers, investors, and tribal leaders can work together to close these harmful data gaps and capitalize on the many untapped economic opportunities in Indian Country.

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