Native American tribal leaders: Indian Country shouldn't be hostage to far-off conflicts

Being able to conduct business easily internationally is the lifeblood of the American economy. Trade provides new markets for American products and know-how, providing choices to foreign consumers and growth and prosperity at home. Yet apparently Congress does not feel that Native Americans deserve to participate.

This week, the House voted on H.R. 2362, a simple yet important piece of legislation that would have allowed Native Americans to do business with foreign companies from any of the 155 countries that are members of the World Trade Organization.

Despite earning the support of 58 percent of House members — and the backing of the National American Indian Housing Council, the National Congress of American Indians, and the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development — the bill failed to meet the two-thirds majority needed to pass under the expedited process known as suspension. It failed not because of any substantive arguments against the bill's merits but because of pressure from two ethnic lobbies with a history of grievances against Turkey. And once again, Native Americans are left to suffer.

Current regulations and red tape prevent Native Americans from taking control of their own economic development. If a business wants to lease property to open a store or a factory, that business must first go through a multilayer, multiyear review process required by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a process that can take up to six years — six years to complete paperwork that takes a week to complete in the rest of the country. Business cannot operate under these conditions. This bill would have changed that.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the only Native American member of Congress, introduced this legislation with the sole intention of creating economic sovereignty for Native Americans. He has firsthand experience of the challenges faced by tribes. Native Americans suffer from the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the country. Compared with the rest of the United States, they are more likely to suffer from drug and alcohol addiction and have less access to quality healthcare.

It was a shock to see a positive and seemingly noncontroversial bill fall short. After all, the bill would provide a clear avenue for foreign investment in Indian Country, streamline archaic and incredibly inefficient regulations that add years of delays to potential business deals, and for the first time allow tribes to enter into business deals as sovereign entities, much like every state in the country can already do. It would do all of these things at no additional cost to the federal government.

H.R. 2362 was also designed to complement H.R. 205, the HEARTH Act, which easily passed the House and Senate and will soon be signed into law. The bills are complementary but different. H.R. 205 was specifically designed to address housing needs on tribal lands but makes no mention of investment from foreign companies. H.R. 2362 invites companies from all 155 WTO countries to invest in Indian Country. It establishes a demonstration project that will help us learn best practices for future business deals. Once we work the kinks out, we would open it up to all tribes.

So why the opposition? One word: Turkey. Turkey and Turkish Americans helped bring this bill to fruition through years of business exchanges and negotiations on how to best facilitate trade and investment with Indian Country. Turkey was the first and only country to send an official delegation to the Reservation Economic Summit, the premiere tribal business conference. Turkey is the only WTO country that has demonstrated an active economic interest in tribal lands. Turkey was mentioned in the text of H.R. 2362 in recognition of these efforts.

But the word "Turkey" in a tribal economic development bill turned into a call to action for special interests. Rather than focusing on the bill's many economic benefits for tribes and all WTO countries, these communities focused on the word "Turkey". In the process, they hijacked a bill that has nothing to do with their centuries-old grievances and put an end to promising new economic opportunities for some of the most impoverished people living within America.

Native Americans have too few – not too many – tools for economic development. We need to give them as many options as we can. Tribes should have the power to choose which tools they wish to use to grow their economies.

H.R. 2362 is a good bill that would have spurred economic development on tribal lands. Instead, it was killed by special interests that chose this opportunity to advance their own agenda. An agenda that has nothing to do with tribal sovereignty.

Eric Bruguier is the chairman of economic development for the Fort Peck Tribes. Lloyd Irvine is a councilman for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes