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Native American economy leads rural communities

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right. We're going to take a moment now to look at the state of the Native American economy. A new series running on the website Indian Country Today found that tribal businesses and governments are often the largest economic contributors in their regions, and this is especially true in rural areas. From health care to green energy, the profile of the Native economy goes far beyond casinos and fossil fuels. Mark Trahant writes for Indian Country Today and joins us now. Welcome.

MARK TRAHANT: Thank you. Glad to be here.

CHANG: Glad to have you. So you have said that, for a fun scroll, readers should Google tribes plus largest employer. Can you just tell us - what would we find if we did indeed type that into Google?

TRAHANT: Well, there are more than 500 tribes in many regions across the country. If you typed into that Google - pick a tribe and pick and largest employer, it would pop up. If not the first, it would be second or third. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes in northwestern Montana, the Oneida Nation in Oneida and Madison counties in Wisconsin, the Iowa tribe of Oklahoma, the Osage tribe of Oklahoma. Really, you could look down the list. Even in Southern California, where you have significant casino operations in those regions - sometimes tribes are the largest employer.

CHANG: That's so interesting. And can you explain how, like, a healthy tribal economy can significantly affect the neighboring communities?

TRAHANT: Well, I think the first way is employment. It just creates jobs that didn't exist a decade ago. And one of the things we saw during the pandemic that was really interesting is a lot of the large tribal employers tried to keep people on as long as possible. Not everyone, of course, but in many cases, they tried to keep people working even when the casino operations were shut down, and I think that was really remarkable.

CHANG: Well, ultimately, how big are we talking? Like, how big is the tribal economy if you were to look across all the tribes in the continental United States?

TRAHANT: That's a really tough question, but I think, from the back-of-the-envelope measure, we're looking at at least $80 billion. And to give you an example of how that fits in, Vermont is about $37 billion.

CHANG: Wow. All right, so more than twice the GDP of Vermont.

TRAHANT: Right.

CHANG: Wow. So can you talk about some of the newer industries that are driving some of the growth in tribal economies - like, I mentioned health care and green energy. Tell us more about that.

TRAHANT: Well, health care is a great example because so many people think of the Indian Health Service as a federal government operation. And that continues to exist, but 60% of the system is now run by tribes or nonprofits, and it's those that have been particularly innovative. In Alaska, for example, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and the Alaska Native Medical Center are extraordinarily innovative. They do everything from dental health therapy, which is mid-level practice in the village, to telemedicine and have found new ways to deliver health care at a significantly lower cost than other institutions.

CHANG: Finally, I want to talk about a phrase that you use. You describe the tribal economy as a, quote, "stealth economy." What did you mean by that? Like, do you feel that, at the federal level, the numbers inside this economy just aren't tracked enough?

TRAHANT: Yeah. Well, I think, generally, we need to do a better job of tracking the data about Indian Country and its economic contributions. Just this year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics started keeping track of unemployment, which is huge.

CHANG: You mean unemployment among tribes?

TRAHANT: In tribal - in reservation communities, yes. And that's extraordinary because you've seen stories in the news media for the last 20 years about 50%, 80% unemployment on reservations. And it turns out the actual measure is about 37%, which is still rough...

CHANG: Yeah.

TRAHANT: ...But it's not anywhere near what people have been reporting. So I think having an accurate, regular metric is just really critical to figuring out how impactful these economies are. And when you think about it, tribes - like states - are in the Constitution. And as constitutional governments, having that record seems, to me, critical.

CHANG: Absolutely.

That is Mark Trahant, reporter at Indian Country Today. Thank you very much for joining us today.

TRAHANT: Oh, this was fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.