Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Indigenous Tribal Groups and Financial Sovereignty

One of the biggest problems indigenous peoples face is achieving financial sovereignty. By this I mean that they, as a distinct cultural or tribal group are able to be free of any form of financial dependence from the larger nation-state. In developing countries this is nearly impossible - the moment some resource is discovered on the indigenous peoples land that may allow them to rise up and become financially sovereign, the nation-state or some other entity comes in, takes either the resource or the land that the resource is part of (see my Mapuche entry). In Africa it is usually mining operations that force indigenous peoples out. In Brazil it is the conversion of rain forest to agricultural production. In the far north of Arctic Russia it is often mining or oil and gas development.

It's a sad picture, and for hundreds of years the story was the same (for a great introductory book on the subject, check out A Global History of Indigenous Peoples Struggles. Now, however, things are starting to shift. In the U.S., where American Indian tribes are considered (but not always treated as) sovereign nations, they own the land and resources that their reservations are upon. Some have been successful in building casinos and becoming financially free from U.S. government programs through gaming revenue. Others have not been so lucky. Casinos are not an option for all tribes. Other avenues for gaining financial sovereignty must be pursued. The Southern Ute in Colorado have found another path: creating their own energy companies.

Let's take a closer look at this example. In the 1870s when the state of Colorado was still getting started, governor Frederick Pitkin ripped apart the Southern Ute lands and gave them only a fraction of their original territory to live on - a small strip along the Colorado-New Mexico border that at the time seemed to offer few resources. As the years went by, it was discovered that this part of the U.S. is actually quite high in oil and natural gas reserves. Energy companies began to cut deals with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the 1950s drilling for natural gas. At this time the Southern Ute had little say about what took place on their land and only received paltry royalties. By the late 1980s, the energy boom in the American West was in full swing, and by the late 1990s there were 63 oil and gas companies operating on Southern Ute land.

When I was down on the reservation at this time, it was obvious that none of the money being pumped out of Southern Ute land was going back to the tribe. Alcoholism was rampant, the educational achievement rate of tribal members was low, and the trailers and reservation land was in a general state of disrepair. Well, recently when I was down there again, things have turned around for the better. The Southern Ute now have some beautiful new buildings in Ignacio, tribal education is up, and several cultural programs are underway to help build tribal solidarity and cultural revival. How did the Southern Ute turn around their own situation? Simple. They took control of their resources, creating their own energy companies to develop and manage their own oil and gas resources.

In 1991 the Southern Ute formed Red Willow Production Company to manage the tribe's energy reserves. The success has been unbelievable. Today Red Willow has interests in more than 1,000 wells and operates more than 450 on the reservation alone. In fact, it is the 13th largest privately held energy producer in the U.S. A remarkable turnaround in only 16 years.

The question is, will the Southern Ute operate their new-found wealth like the rest of capitalist, material hungry America? Or will they be a little more savvy with it? What I can tell from recently being on the reservation and looking into it, I'm guessing that they will use their financial sovereignty to build cultural sovereignty and independence. The tribe is investing millions in new ventures aimed at preserving wealth for future generations long after the last well has been pumped dry. There are full scholarships and living stipends set up by the tribe for college. New houses are being built, and some of the money is being invested in other tribal programs aimed at preserving other aspects of their culture.

It's a great story, one that does not often happen in today's globalized world run by large nation-states and multinational companies. I don't think it will happen to all indigenous people - not all of them are sitting on billions of dollars in resources. But it is a start, and a good one at that. Perhaps the Southern Ute will see the wisdom of using some (just a tad) of this money in helping other American Indian tribes or other indigenous peoples try and find their own way towards financial sovereignty. Like it is for individuals, financial sovereignty is often the first step to full sovereignty.

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Victor said...

Hi Peter -- Congratulations on your blog, which looks really promising, and your other efforts on behalf of indigenous peoples. My own principal concern in this regard is with cultural autonomy. I have a blog centered on the traditional music of indigenous peoples which might interest you: http://music000001.blogspot.com/

Currently I've been posting on the "Great Kalahari Debate," over the status of the Ju'hoansi Bushmen of the Kalahari desert, whose traditions and political autonomy have been systematically degraded and are now threatened with extinction. See posts 64-73. If any of this interests you, I hope you'll take a look and also comment. Maybe we can exchange links. -- Good Luck -- Victor

Peter N. Jones said...


Thanks for the kind words. I checked out your blog, it is really good. I made a post about it here.

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