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The Economics of Indigenous Peoples' Nations

By       Message David Alexander Sugar       (Page 1 of 1 pages)     Permalink

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Some nations have tried Casinos and call centers. Others have tried
meat packing for freedom. Yet, unemployment remains high, up to 80% for
some communities, such as on the Lakota reservations. Similarly, per
capita income often remains below the poverty line, such as the $2,000
per capita found in Lakota. The exact story is of course different for
each nation, but the overall results of these efforts have usually been
rather bleak.

Worse still, each of these efforts require nations to participate in a
culturally foreign social-economic model. Each time doing so, a small
part of the culture dies in the process. That is because this model
requires people to compete against each other, often by any means
necessary, and to do so while using the labor of others for personal
gain in a market that is often closed and where goods and services
often become artificially scarce and demand is artificially generated
to further extract wealth rather than meeting real needs.

Certainly, for the American Indian working at a meat packing factory or
a call center a job is a means of survival for a family. But it leads
to no real economic development or further growth, whether for the
worker or for the nation. It is a relationship that exists because the
cost of bargained labor is so very cheap on reservation. If the
standard of living and income expectations did actually rise, those so
eager to place some temporary facility or industry on the reservation
will often simply pull up and leave to someplace cheaper. In fact, this
relationship specifically discourages investment in the kind of
economic development that would produce long term growth,
infrastructure, and economic facilities, because doing so both will
create higher future labor costs and make it far more difficult to
later leave.

Even in the case of Casinos, there are issues. Where a nation is
fortunate enough to be the direct beneficial owner of a casino rather
than simply licensing the rights and profits to an outside entity, this
casts the nation itself in the role of extracting wealth through
deliberate deception of others. It may be ironic, given that this is
essentially a reversal of roles, since often indigenous lands were
acquired through such tactics, but this too means people must forget
who they are and what their lifeways mean and take up the very same
behaviors of the invader that they found to be so very offensive. In
this way, also, the nations and culture can surely also slowly die.

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As I noted there are basic cultural questioned tied to economics. This
was best explained to me once by Russell Means. While at the time I
believe he was speaking about the social and cultural consequence of
western styles education, what he said that most stuck with me was, and
to roughly paraphrase his words, "Indians do not compete". Clearly
then, the logical way forward is to look at sustainable models based on
voluntary cooperative economics, and there are a number examples found
practiced today which do not require high levels of (presumably
external) investment to get started and which have already been
demonstratively effective. One example of this is found in the
economics of free (as in freedom) software.

Free software underpins not just the technological foundations of the
global Internet, but also the financial success of even large public
corporations. Examples of this include IBM, who claims to make over $1
billion in revenue annually through free software, and RedHat (rhat),
which is a publicly traded company that develops and sells free
software for enterprise uses. But while free software scales even to
sustain very large businesses, it also enables individuals and much
smaller and entirely autonomous entities to successfully economically
participate, and often with very minimal startup costs.

Free software is often expressed and provided through a copyright
license, such as the GNU General Public License. The terms of such a
license essentially are that one who receives free software is free to
provide the software to others, whether in original form or modified,
so long as they add no additional restrictions or conditions when they
do so. Since they originally received the software with the full source
code to compile and build it, it is necessary to offer it to others
with the same. This, in economic terms, is a transaction, but not an
exchange of money, it is rather an exchange of consideration.

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This relationship does not in any way prevent free software from being
commercially sold in any fashion. However, it does mean one cannot
artificially control or otherwise restrict the freedom of what the
purchaser may do with what you have sold them. It does however offer
new ways for buyers and sellers to relate. Since the downstream seller
may choose to make changes or fixes and then redistribute the improved
version, those changes too become public, and can make their way to the
original developer and all users of said software who then benefit.
This is where cooperative benefits scale, and in a manner that is both
socially and culturally consistent with the lifeways of many nations.

Certainly not are all free software relationships expressed as buyers
and sellers, it was simply the one most clear to explain to a larger
audience. In fact many kinds of cooperative relationships can exist,
and many different kinds of business models can be applied, and these
too often will align well with traditional lifeways. Equally important,
free software allows cooperative expertise. Since one cannot derive
exclusive benefit at the expense of another, there is much greater
incentive for people working on similar problems to do so together,
even when the outcome is in free software that will be commercially

With no market barriers to participation, and with the possibility for
zero cost in distribution, much of the cost of commercially starting in
free software are entirely infrastructure and equipment costs. Given
the cooperative nature of free software, this too could lend itself to
shared or cooperative costs. Individual nations could even minimally
invest in setting up small community development centers where
equipment and infrastructure are particularly scarce.

Free software certainly will not solve all the problems of the surviving
nations alone. However, it certainly can even in a small way help
contribute to the establishment of sustainable economic development,
and to do so without having to compromise core social and cultural
principles in the process.


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I am currently Vice Principle Chief for the Cherokees of Idaho and chief facilitator for GNU Telephony. I spend my free time traveling, reading, occasionally speaking at scientific conferences, and working with various social and political (more...)

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