America's biggest Indian reservation tries to stimulate private enterprise
Anybody who wants to set up shop in the reservation must conduct an archaeological survey, obtain a letter of support from the tribe's president and jump through up to a dozen other hoops. These regulations, put in place to protect Indians from white traders, now bind native entrepreneurs large and small. Timothy Halwood recently obtained a permit to take small groups of tourists into the Canyon de Chelly. The process took two years.
Another problem is land. Like other reservations, most of the Navajo Nation is held in trust by the federal government. Because Navajos do not own their land, they cannot use it as collateral to finance a business. To make matters worse, almost 8,000 people claim grazing rights over land that often extends into towns. These rights have no paper value and so cannot normally be sold to developers. The result is a paradox: a vast, underpopulated area where it is hard to find a commercial site.
A third problem is politics. The Navajo Nation has an 88-member legislature and 110 local chapters. “It's a lot of chiefs,” says Joe Shirley, the Navajo president. This is a big reason the Navajos have been slow to get into the casino business. Plans to do so were approved in 2001, but feuds over how to divide the spoils between tribal and local governments led to delays. The Navajos' first casino is expected to open this autumn, some 150 miles from the nearest big city, in a market that has been saturated by smaller, nimbler tribes.
Conservatives charge tribes with being the last bastion of socialism or words to that effect. Note that only one of the three problems here--land--is arguably socialist in nature. The other problems have nothing to do with anything inherent or unalterable in tribal culture. They're simply examples of inefficient governance.