The First Americans are still last in America, especially in the Northern Great Plains where the disparity is the greatest. The unemployment rate on Indian Reservations in the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming exceed seventy and eighty percent (70% and 80%).  Unemployment on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota is at 85%, or ten times the national average. The unemployment rate for the white population in this area of the country is below the national average, fueled by an increase in crop prices and energy production.

These extreme unemployment rates leads to a shorter life expectancy, higher suicide rates, alcoholism, violence against women, education gaps, and a host of other negative social indicators.

The Indian Reservation system in America is complex--- legally, socially and economically – but there is no excuse for allowing the economic disparity between whites and Indians that exists in this country. It remains a national stain on our conscious.  

Indian Reservations are sovereign nations within our country struggling to keep their cultures and family lives intact while participating in the American dream. Indian people serve in the military and pay federal taxes. 

Still, as intractable and frustrating as this situation is, there are some important positive signs.  Most important is a change in the attitude of Indian people.  While the treaties with the United States remain the backbone of Indian law and sovereignty, Indian leaders now recognize that treaties are not a business plan.  Treaties provide for certain (inadequate) benefits but they will not stimulate investment or provide private sector jobs. 

Equally important is the changing attitude of the local white populations.  Dr. David Chicoine, the President of South Dakota State University, has recognized that the best way to help his State advance is to improve the economies on the State’s nine Indian Reservations.  If the unemployment rates on the Reservations can be cut, it will benefit the entire State. 

There are also positive developments on the federal level.  The Obama Administration has settled outstanding law suits over important historical claims with Indian tribes.  Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has established a Council for Native American Farming and Ranching to help Indian farmers and ranchers access programs designed to help American farmers and rural towns but which have never reached Indian people. 

The Reservations in the Northern Great Plains face a unique challenge even within the Indian community because they are the furthest from a population center and their best land was flooded by in the 1960’s by the dams build to guard against flooding in the Midwest. 

The Intertribal Agriculture Council, formed in 1987, has now celebrated its 25th anniversary.  According to its Executive Director, Ross Racine of Montana the mission is “To provide a unified effort to promote Indian Agriculture for the benefit of Indian People.” The Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, under the leadership of Chairman Tex Hall from North Dakota, also embraces agriculture as one of the best ways to break the cycle of poverty and provide a path to upward mobility for Indian Reservations in the Northern Plans. 

Sec. Vilsack tries on a traditional Indian star quilt at the Intertribal Council 

The Great Plains Association has proposed an Indian Agriculture Act that would include a Development Trust Fund designed to spur their agriculture economy.  The Trust Fund would focus on agriculture and provide grants by USDA designed to improve infrastructure on the Reservations, establish or expand irrigation, start farming operations and value added agriculture business.  It would also fund extension services by Indian colleges and land-grant universities to serve Indian Country.

Michael Jandreau is Chairman of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and also Chairman of the Agriculture Subcommittee for the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association.  According to Chairman Jandreau, “focusing on agriculture represents the best possible approach to re-establishing a sustainable life style for rural Tribes and Indian people.” Lower Brule has established a Lower Brule Farm Corporation that now has 8,000 acres under irrigation and 40,000 acres for grazing and feed. They have also started Lakota Foods to market value added foods produced on the Reservation.  (See: for gift baskets.) 

The Great Plains Tribal Association has put forward an interesting idea on how to capitalize an Agriculture Development Trust Fund.  The great dams on the Missouri River generate electricity and revenue for the federal government. While the dams flooded the Missouri River Tribes’ best land, and while the Tribes have the first right to the water, the revenue from the sale of the electricity is not divided or split in any way – even though it comes from the Tribes’ water and land. In fact, the Tribes actually have to pay for their electricity.  The proposed legislation would split the revenue from the sale of the electricity and use it to capitalize the trust fund.

The recent Presidential election has focused attention on the rapidly changing demographic face of America, particular the rising influence of Latinos, African Americans and Asians in the electorate.  American Indians are a small scattered group that will never capture this attention or political power. But the time has come to find a long-lasting solution to help rural Tribes establish a new, long-lasting, sustainable economy. 

The Obama Administration, the Tribes the States and all stakeholder should come together to enact an Indian Agriculture Act including an Indian Development Trust Fund, focusing, in particular, on the Missouri River Tribes. It could settle their outstanding claim over construction of the Missouri River dams and stimulate a private sector economy.  

The Missouri River Tribes have the highest unemployment rates in the United States. Solving this problem once and for all should be a national priority. All supporters of American agriculture can help by assisting Tribes in their quest for an Indian Agriculture Act. 


Marshall Matz practices law in Washington, DC and South Dakota. 




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