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Omdahl: Reservations need economic development

By Staff | Jul 15, 2016

By Lloyd Omdahl


Speaking some time ago to a 4-state meeting of tribal leaders in Billings, Alvin Windy Boy, a Montana Chippewa, suggested that reservations deserved a Marshall Plan akin to the post-World War II $120 billion program that rebuilt Europe.

“We were annihilated by the turn of the century (1900) but we’ve never been rebuilt,” Windy Boy pointed out.

The Marshall Plan was not based solely on American compassion for the 18 European countries that participated. We had a selfish interest in stopping the spread of communism with a strong Europe as a partner and buffer.

A Marshall Plan for reservations would be a great benefit for Native Americans but it would also be good for all of North Dakota to have vibrant economies and societies on reservations.

We have kept Native Americans dependent at a cost that has been staggering for both Native Americans and taxpayers. It will continue to be a chronic tax burden until we start thinking of economic development on reservations as investments rather than expenses.

Europe was a good investment for American taxpayers. Reservations could be a good investment if we would quit offering temporary solutions that prolong dependency instead of funding long-term solutions that would result in self-reliance.

Before a visionary Marshall Plan will work, we all need to overlook the grievances of the past and focus on the future. There is plenty of justification for a victimhood complex but it is time for a new mindset.

Charles Trimble, former executive director of the National Congress of American Indians and a columnist in Indian County Today, once urged Native Americans to quit clinging to their paradigm of victimhood.

“Victimhood is working for us but it is a prison from which we must free ourselves if we mean for our children to go forward,” he wrote.

North Dakota has had enough talk about moving forward. It is time to reassess and underwrite opportunities on and off reservations. Other tribes and other states are ploughing new ground every year. We could do more.

When he was governor, John Hoeven suggested to Indian Leaders at a United Tribes Intertribal Council that Indian heritage was a major asset on reservations because culture tours “are a No. 1 priority of the international tourist trade.” Four tribes in Maine are doing wonders capitalizing on culture and providing a game plan that could be emulated in North Dakota.

The casinos have helped but the greatest need on reservations is activity that can be streamed into the national and world economy. In the past, we have relied on under-capitalized startups and government contracts, none of which could be mainstreamed or sustained.

A prerequisite for mainstreaming is a properly trained workforce. This may require some redirection of the reservation education system and behavioral changes by potential employees and managers.

The reservation education systems need to include serious incentives to encourage young people to pursue marketable skills, with students learning to accept the discipline of the clock.

To guide students, Arkansas, Kentucky, Minnesota and Maine require the publication of post-college employment opportunities and the potential earnings for each skill. Reservation curriculum planners and students might take a good look at that strategy.

Just as the success of the Marshall Plan rested on the mutual goals of the United States and Europe, a Marshall Plan for reservations must rest on mutual goals of us European immigrants and Native Americans.

If we keep doing what we have been doing, nothing will change. Native Americans will continue to struggle for meaningful lives, society will be denied the benefits of latent Native American ingenuity, and taxpayers will keep paying the bill.

With a new administration coming to Bismarck, this would be the time for a new beginning in North Dakota-Native American relations.

Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor and former political science professor at UND.

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