When COVID shutdowns stifled the economy in the spring of 2020, shutting down hotels, restaurants, and entertainment venues, it hit Native American communities especially hard.
Unemployment soared as tourism halted and businesses like casinos and restaurants closed. Tribal incomes plummeted and some tribes were forced to reduce the services they provided to their members.
In North Carolina and beyond, Native American tribes often depend on industries like gambling and tourism that can be extremely sensitive to an economic downturn. The Charlotte area is home to one such business: Two Kings Casino at Kings Mountain, operated by the South Carolina-based Catawba Indian Nation.
Dependence on these types of industries affects the financial resilience of tribal communities in difficult times and accumulates obstacles for a population already facing higher risks of poverty and unemployment. That’s according to a new report from Wells Fargo’s Native American Banking division.
With a potential recession looming and just ahead of Native American Heritage Month which begins November 1, the report offers ways to build economic resilience in Indian Country so that tribal communities can better weather the next crisis.
“We really wanted to use (the impact of) the pandemic as an opportunity to think about what Native American communities can do to prepare for the economic shocks ahead,” said Dawson Her Many Horses, head of Native American Banking at Wells. Fargo, said in an interview with The Charlotte Observer. He is based in Las Vegas.
“Long standing inequalities”
According to census data, Native Americans face lower median income levels and higher rates of poverty and unemployment than other racial groups, including white, black and Hispanic Americans.
In North Carolina, Native Americans are more likely to live in rural areas. According to the 2020 census, just over 300,000 people who identify as Native American or Alaska Native reside in the state. That’s 3% of the state’s population.
“If you look at a map of where Native Americans are in North Carolina, you see them all around the state, usually away from more urban areas,” said Mary Ann Jacobs, chair of the Department of Native American Studies. . at UNC Pembroke.
Economic challenges and this rural geography combine to shape other inequalities, like health disparities, she said.
In the Wells Fargo report, analysts say diversifying tribal economies and spurring new investment in tribal areas can help address “long-standing economic and social inequalities” for Native Americans across the country.
The bank, one of Charlotte’s largest employers, holds $3.9 billion in deposits for tribal governments and tribal-owned entities across the country.
“It’s in our roots as a business,” Her Many Horses said, referring to the bank’s Western origins. “We want to raise (awareness) of the challenges that exist from a financial perspective.”
A persistent lack of data remains one of the biggest barriers to economic development for tribal communities, Her Many Horses said.
Tribal-owned businesses drive much of the economic activity in Indian Country – a term used by Native Americans and others to describe self-governing Native American communities across the United States.
These sovereign governments are not required to disclose information like other entities, such as state governments or public companies, do, the report said.
“Tribal governments and corporations are the main economic players, not entrepreneurs and small businesses like traditional America,” said Her Many Horses, an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota.
The report also highlights two other barriers: a lack of broadband access and a fragmented capital landscape, which means that investments in tribal areas often come from many types of financial institutions.
Wells Fargo offered some general solutions, such as increasing partnerships between governments and private companies to attract more capital to Indian lands and building cross-tribal coalitions to make joint investments that fuel development.
“We don’t just want to identify the issues,” Her Many Horses said. “We want to help.”
In North Carolina, Jacobs said, a good start would be simply to raise awareness of Native American communities in the state.
“Most people don’t know that North Carolina has eight state-recognized tribes,” she said. “I think the most important thing to know is that our state has and continues to have one of the largest populations of Native Americans east of the Mississippi.”
This story was originally published October 27, 2022 5:40 a.m.