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Contemporary Issues - Sovereignty & Economics

Sovereignty & Economics | Environmental Concerns,
Social Concerns, & Tribal Government Renaissance


Similar to the issues faced by most tribal nations, the issue of sovereignty for tribal nations continues to be challenged. On the national level, issues materialize in disagreements between tribes and federal officials over the extent of services and appropriations given to the tribes resulting from treaty agreements. These services are generally funded through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The BIA has the fiduciary (holding something in trust) responsibility for overseeing tribal funds. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, as a monolithic agency, is cumbersome and must deal with more than 500 tribes nationally. As a result, this agency has difficulty carrying out some of its tasks. Tribes, on the one hand, are ambivalent about the role of the BIA. On the other hand, they fear loss of services so vital to tribal economic survival. States continue to challenge tribal sovereign rights, especially in light of an uncertain national economy.


Many tribes have entered into gaming, as a remedy for economic woes. The impact of these business ventures are, as yet, undetermined. Because many of these ventures are new, especially to North Dakota, they have not had the luxury of stabilizing. The potential impact of these ventures on the economic condition on the reservation could be extensive. However, with a country confronted with a staggering national debt, and pressures applied by both states, individual and collective tribal members, and private interests, tribes will have difficulty in maintaining what little gains they may be seeing from gaming. The net effect of these ventures, both nationally and at the state level, have seen pressure applied to tribes over issues of accountability, jurisdiction, and tribal rights.

One significant local issue of concern to the Spirit Lake Tribe continues to be the chronic high unemployment rates. Revenues generated by both of the Spirit Lake Tribe’s casino and their business ventures, Sioux Manufacturing Company and Dakota Tribal Industries, Inc., have contributed to the economic well-being of the tribal communities. However, these enterprises have depended, to a certain extent, on defense related contracts, and are somewhat affected by changes in world economics. The relaxation of international tensions and the aftermath of the GAIT and NAFTA agreements are having an effect on the labor and market supply. These changes provide challenges to the Spirit Lake economy. Sioux Manufacturing Company has been pursuing contracting opportunities in the aerospace industry. The closing and downsizing of many air bases all over the world has also impacted the tribe’s economy. Tribal industries perform on many U.S. Department of Defense contracts. A continuing trend in downsizing could seriously affect the number and availability of federal defense contracts.

Labor resources at Fort Totten are more extensive than generally acknowledged. In addition to agriculture, a co-located manufacturing environment contributes to the skill level of the Spirit Lake work force. The labor force has a broad background of mechanical farm experience supplemented by substantial manufacturing experience. The unemployment rate on the reservation, however, remains high.

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