The Gun Lake Casino, as all other tribal casinos, remains voluntarily closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Guest Opinion

By Eric S. Trevan, Ph.D. and Jon Deacon Panamaroff, MPA

COVID-19 has created an incredible amount of challenges for our daily routines and perhaps will change how we function as a society. Response times have varied throughout the world and defeating this pandemic will take everyone working together. Through immense health challenges, unsettled economies and markets, quarantines, and social distancing, we genuinely have a current "new normal."

We face conflicting challenges; we need to stay apart to improve our collective health, but we need to be together to improve our economy.

Through these difficult times, Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, and Native Hawaiians already are experiencing more significant challenges through income inequality, higher levels of harmful health conditions (such as diabetes, alcoholism, heart disease), and ongoing equity issues. Whereas there is a trust relationship with the United States government, it appears that tribes once again are having to cover shortfalls in stimulus, access to health care and testing equipment, and tremendous barriers accessing financial resources.

Now with the CARES Act lacking parity pursuant to Native populations per capita to overall funds proportionately available to tribes, there are gaps and differing interpretations of what tribe gets what resources based on a colonial framework! The definition has been put on the Native population to continue to support outdated laws and regulations that date back to the Marshall Trilogy and discovery, the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act to the HEARTH Act.

If you are Native Hawaiian, sovereignty struggles are always ongoing. But instead of focusing on what is wrong or what others look to impose on our communities, tribes have evolved from the self-determination era to focus on assets and the actual steps of building sustaining economies, practicing genuine independent self-governance, and developing futures that will last seven generations.

The current pandemic nudges tribal governments to exercise their sovereignty and find solutions. With multiple labels, the current Economic Empowerment Era has opened doors for tribal governments to find ways to generate revenues and truly build tribal economies. A strong tribal economy not only benefits the tribal nation, but has significant impacts to surrounding regional economies. Tribes now are progressively moving from one single industry to meeting economic demand, reducing economic leakages and diversifying their economies. The diversification will ensure their business operations can leverage capital, work in partnership/joint ventures, and develop strategies that optimize their economies. 

With the focus to find ways to generate revenues from Tribal Business Entities (TBE), tribes are also in the process of solidifying the trust relationship so that services can be provided to tribal citizens. However, there are incredible challenges that still do not allow for Native communities to participate in the capital market fully, investments, and reaching true economies of scale. These challenges range from access to capital, distancing from the supply chain, and continued legal pressure imposed due to relationships with the 574 federally recognized tribes and their businesses, be that a Tribal LLC, a Section 17 Corporation, Alaska Native Regional Corporation or a Native Hawaiian Organization. Tribes have the ability to navigate these conversations and work together.

Through these challenges, Tribes and Native organizations are now finding ways to support Tribal citizens where the global pandemic has exposed gaps with Tribes throughout the United States. Health is first and foremost and finding ways to decolonize the imposed health systems and find ways to provide high-quality health and medical support. Access to capital so Tribal economies can open up to outside investment, consumers, and international trade for emerging domestic economies. Moving from revenue to GDP and leveraging business and economic opportunities to optimize the economy. Environmental stewardship of Sovereign Native land is best managed by a focus of assets of the tribal property. By capturing and disseminating data, information, and technology solutions, tribes can provide stewardship of information, diffusion of knowledge, entrepreneurship, and innovation. Dispute resolution is resolved in a variety of indigenous courts, panels, and circles throughout the world, and new tribal models can bring trust between individuals, businesses, and government. Moving beyond colonial red tape that expands the process of U.S. commerce while adding a layer of confusion and supposed risk due to the federal government's continued trust oversight does not allow for the Native economies to access the open market fully.

Exposing these weaknesses shows our most significant opportunities, and this pandemic can be a time of unity and discussion to embrace our community fully. The CARES Act has been reported to be the largest infusion of capital to Native communities ever in the history of the Native-to-federal government relationship. The funding comes at a time that all Tribal citizens experience significant stresses, frustration, and begin to understand the fragile nature of an economy. But in this time of uncertainty, we as Native communities must come together to talk amongst ourselves on how we look after our community. It is not a time to have the Federal government, intentionally or unintentionally, divide us with inadequate funding and ask them to solve our disputes.  

Supporting tribes, tribal leaders, and stakeholders is critical, and exercising sovereign solutions is key. It is time for us to rethink our relationships with the economy, the tribal economy, and how we access capital for our communities so we will have the ability to be self-sustaining. We can define how our health-care system looks within our communities with the proper blend of traditional healing that is blended with modern medicine as we are forever evolving people. Tribes can use technology, artificial intelligence, and other information platforms to support entrepreneurial activities, analyze, and innovate. It’s time to create trade laws and mechanisms that allow for us to finally participate in capital marketing with our undue burden of entry based on an outdated trust system. Finally, it is time for us to remember that we are all Natives and members of our larger tribal family.

Eric Trevan, Ph.D. is a tribal citizen of the Match-E-Nash-she-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians (Gun Lake Tribe) and a national advocate for entrepreneurship, innovation and economic development. He focuses on working with small, minority and Native American businesses. He is a member of the faculty and on the tenure track for Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Trevan recently ended a term as chairman of Gun Lake Investments, which fosters tribal economic development. He is the past president and CEO of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development.

Jon Deacon Panamaroff has spent his professional career in finance and Native American economic development working with/for Native-owned corporations, Community Development Financial Institutions, the Federal government, and banks. He has had the honor to be the CEO and President of multiple Section 17 Corporations & Alaska Native Corporations during his career and has served on the Board of Directors for a number of Native American nonprofit organizations. Jon is currently a PhD candidate at the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver.

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About The Author
Author: Eric Trevan and Jon Deacon Panamaroff