American Indian tribal leaders urged fellow tribes on Tuesday to go beyond gambling and tobacco when it comes to generating revenue for their economies.
"Our nation has three casinos -- we do very well with it. We also sell an awful lot of cigarettes," said Robert Porter, president of the Seneca Nation of Indians, based in New York state. "It's just too narrow for the future."
Porter told tribal government leaders, entrepreneurs and U.S. government officials in Las Vegas on Tuesday that tribes should work with the United State government to try to get more freedom over their land and money.
"We need to ask them to let us be free to make our own money, let us be free to sustain our own nations," Porter said.
The Seneca tribe has New York casinos in Niagara Falls, Salamanca and Buffalo, and is also in the motor fuel industry. The tribe says its ventures generate $1.1 billion per year and employ more than 6,500 people, including folks outside the tribe.
Other tribes have not been so prosperous.
Economic development on the Navajo Nation, based in Arizona, is a "hard stone to grind," the tribe's Division of Economic Development acknowledges. Navajo politicians often cite economic development as the most pressing need on the 27,000 square-mile reservation, but the unemployment rate consistently hovers around 50 percent.
The tribe derives much of its revenue from taxes and natural resources, such as coal. Millions of tourists pass through the reservation each year, but no RV parks or rest areas exist on the reservation, and the roughly 920 hotel rooms aren't enough.
A lack of infrastructure, a business site leasing process that can take years, dual and triple taxation, and complex land issues stand in the way of job creation, economic development officials say. Potential businesses also are turned off by the tribe's reluctance to waive its sovereign immunity, which would allow the tribe to be sued if it breaches a contract.
The nearby Hopi reservation struggles with some of the same problems.
More than a quarter of the work force is unemployed, and the lack of infrastructure is mostly to blame. The tribe celebrated the opening a hotel last year -- only the second to be built on the reservation -- and has broken ground on an adjacent restaurant. The remote 1.6 million-acre Hopi reservation is completely surrounded by the much larger Navajo Nation.
Chairman Robert Martin of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, in California, says tribes must be willing to consider various kinds of investments that have proven demand. The Morongo Band has a casino in southern California, but also owns a 36-hole golf course and other businesses, including almond groves and a bowling alley.
Martin said businesses won't work without customers, but tribes can attract them by selling goods and services that are needed.
"You just have to diversify," he said.
Robert McGhee, treasurer for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, based in Alabama, said economic development can sometimes seem slow because tribal governments have to be conservative in considering spending to invest or pay for direct services for their people.
"I represent 3,000 shareholders," McGhee said. "For me to determine that I'm going to invest $1 to $1 million in a company that's coming in, it takes appropriate due diligence and it's not something that's going to be quick."
Porter said tribes have been dealing with intrusions into their economic development for years, but must press on with seeking more autonomy even if it means tribes make mistakes along the way.
"Having a paternalistic approach where the federal government is telling us what we can do and not do ... is not freedom," he said. "We have to come to grips with that."
McGhee, Martin and Porter spoke at the Reservation Economic Summit, organized by the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development.