Zuckerberg meets Native American poverty
© Getty Images

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg visited the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana last weekend, and took to Facebook to shed light on how federal policies have failed Native Americans with the current state of reservation economies.

On the Blackfeet Reservation, unemployment is over 10 percent and of those employed, 70 percent work for the tribal or federal government. The most recent startup business, a fabric shop, opened five years ago, and the last hope for industrial development was a pencil company that closed in 1981.

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These abysmal economic conditions pale compared to health and social ills: life expectancy on the Blackfeet reservation is 20 years less than the national average; 50 out of 196 babies in 2016 were born with drug dependency from their drug-addicted mothers; and they struggle with “dual issues of starvation and obesity.”

 

What explains the sad state of the Blackfeet economy and nearly every other reservation economy? Zuckerberg nails it — “The reservation is a microcosm of how the pillars of a fair government, strong economy, and healthy community are all connected.”

Indian reservations are locked into colonialism with their land held in trust by the federal government on the grounds that Indians are “incompetent” to manage their own resources. Legal jurisdictions are often ambiguous and tribal council governance structures lack checks and balances and independent courts.

My research with Dominic Parker shows how the lack of independent judiciaries stifles growth on reservations. Tribes without independent judiciaries have per capita income 30 percent below those with and growth rates 20 percent below. Zuckerberg, who clearly understands corporate finance, explains why investment is lacking: “When outside businesses invest and, for example, try to collect payment from members of the tribe, they find the courts always rule in favor of tribal members. This creates a massive disincentive for people to invest or start new businesses, which in turn reduces opportunity and jobs.”

Zuckerberg concludes that problems on the Blackfeet Reservation “comes back to the basic idea of freedom. If people have the freedom to do what they want — whether that's taking a chance on a new idea or building their community — the inherent creativity and goodness in people will help different parts of society flourish.”

For thousands of years the Blackfeet had the freedom to roam, following massive buffalo herds. When that era ended with them being relegated to their reservation, they showed a remarkable ability to adapt. From their equestrian culture in which individuals owned their individual horses, but herded them communally, they grazed cattle on the open range and became net exports of beef to the railroad passing through their territory.

The Blackfeet success at cattle ranching, however, was short-lived because the colonial government forced allotment of small land parcels ranging in size from 40 to 160 acres — hardly enough to grow a crop or raise cattle — to 2,656 tribal members and, in 1911, sold 156,000 acres of Indian land to white settlers. Today more that 60 percent of the reservation is locked into trusteeship wherein Department of Interior management rules stifle investment and productivity. As the tribal council chairman Harry Barnes, put it to Zuckerberg, “they ripped the pride right out of our chests and backfilled it with alcohol.”

The Blackfeet, like so many tribes are searching for ways to free themselves from colonial bondage, and there is hope. Lance Morgan, managing partner of a national tribal law firm, noted in the Arizona State Law Journal, “The economic rise of tribes in the last twenty-five years, largely due to long term impact of self-determination, gaming, natural resource development, and the ancillary rise of tribal corporations, has changed the basic economic and legal equation.”

Zuckerberg is confident that they will “get the personal freedom they and all people strive for.” If he is right, they will have “the dignity and confidence to be entrepreneurial” but rather than feeling “helpless and dependent.”

Terry L. Anderson is a senior fellow at the Stanford University Hoover Institution and former president of the Property and Environment Research Center in Montana. 


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