Understanding Tribal Differences Needed for Successful Development

For many reasons, developing a project on reservation land is different than it is elsewhere.

When non-Native American developers consider land deals, decisions for the best use of the land are routinely determined by the use that offers the best financial return. When Native Americans consider a lease, investment or land use decision, they typically view it as interconnected with life that has physical, economic, social and spiritual implications, and all of these impacts must be carefully weighed.

This interconnectedness, known as “seven-generation thinking” is how Native American people are taught to think about their long-term sustainability —about making decisions that ensure that their land, air, and water can support all forms of life for seven generations to come. While each American Indian tribe is unique, most tribal people believe there is a responsibility to be considered in balance the with the economic opportunity.

While this is a sacred philosophy for most Native people, most non-Native businesses are not prepared to evaluate decisions from this multifaceted perspective. Generally, more thought, deliberate discussion and due diligence are required to close a deal with a tribal government or Native American business than for a business transaction off reservation.

Not surprisingly, many non-Native American businesspeople may misinterpret this extended decision-making period as inefficiency. For Native Americans, however, this is essential to developing a truly viable seven-generation economy.

The use of tribal land is further complicated by its legal status. Title to tribal lands is held in trust by the federal government. Trust status gives tribal governments the ability to exercise sovereign authority within their boundaries and are not generally subject to state laws. However, trust status also creates limitations on the use of these lands, and most actions affecting the land must comply with federal law.

Another factor complicating the development process is how the land is held in trust. Tribal land can be held either wholly by the tribal community or through a combination of tribal jurisdiction and individual tribal landowners that received a land allotment. When allotted land is involved, even a 10-acre parcel can mean 200-300 individuals need to approve a development deal, adding to the complexity of the development process.

Another Native American tradition that makes doing business different on tribal land is that most tribal communities are communal, and decisions are made with the consensus of the membership, often after long and deliberate discussions. The effort to reach consensus requires that a tribal government reach out to tribe members and bring them into the decision-making process.

This is very different from how decisions are made by city councils, where municipal and county governments decide the land use after listening to planners, lawyers or lobbyists. If residents object, they have to find their own way into the decision-making process.

In addition to the philosophical and land ownership issues, tribes vary widely in their development experience and sophistication. Some have a design review process and standards in place that allows them to move a project through the necessary steps with efficiency. Others lack appropriate tax and zoning codes necessary to facilitate smooth development of any commercial project.

Also, many tribes lack the capital to provide needed infrastructure, such as water, power, and sewage. Consequently, developers may need to include the cost of infrastructure build-out in their cost analysis. The Ak-Chin Indian Community’s industrial park is one of the exceptions. Santa Cruz Commerce Center, which has all of its infrastructure in place, is the only Arizona Native American tribal location to be Gold Certified as a shovel-ready site by the Arizona Commerce Authority.

While doing business on tribal land may be different, successful projects can generate rewards both on and off the reservation in job creation, reduced poverty, and shared resources. Understanding the differences goes a long way in creating success.

How to Improve Business Relationships with Native Americans

Before traveling to any foreign country, it is prudent to learn how that country’s culture and business practices differ from your own. The same is true when you seek to establish a business relationship with a Native American tribe. There are 22 federally recognized tribes in Arizona and each one operates like its own country. Each has its own tribal government structure, sets its own tax policies, and has its own development process. In order to gain cultural competence, you must first be aware of your own world view and how that may affect your ability to understand, communicate with, and effectively interact with Native people. Understanding common customs and business routines can help you avoid embarrassment and focus on building successful relationships.

Here are five of the most common qualities that are valued by Native people and therefore relevant to your business interactions.

  1. Relationships come first; then business. Laying a foundation for relationships begins with an understanding of history, trust, respect, honor, and tribal sovereignty. A tribe won’t automatically teach you about these things, but you can take the initiative to seek out the information from organizations like the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona in Tucson; the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University; or the Center for American Indian Economic Development at Northern Arizona University.
  2. Networking with other professionals who have done work with a tribe is another way to learn about customs and practices particular to a certain tribe. Such affiliation can also help build trust for your relationship.
  3. Time is relative to circumstances. Many Native Americans tend to see time on a continuum of the past, present, and future. This means much can be gained by watching, listening, waiting, and then acting when the time is right. It’s more about respecting the timeliness of an action rather than doing something by a certain time on the clock or the calendar.
  4. Stories are integral to communication. Native Americans often exchange information and convey beliefs through storytelling. Their communication style is greatly affected by their values of humility, respect for elders, and concern for group harmony.
  5. Negotiations are an opportunity for consensus-building. Dialogue should be approached with patience, politeness and modesty. Native Americans tend to be more collaborative and less confrontational than other Americans. Long silences during discussions are typically occasions for tribal members to fully consider the options before them.
  6. Respect personal space. Even though there are varying expectations, some tribal members greatly value keeping a distance of 2-1/2 to 3 feet of personal space between them and others. Soft talk, gentle handshakes, minimal eye contact–especially with elders–and little facial display of emotion are also appreciated among many American Indians.

These are just a few of the cultural differences that may be applicable to interactions with the tribe you want to approach. However, even if you have worked with one tribe before, you only have experience with one tribe. Do not assume that the culture will be the same with another.

When Phil Entz, a Development Management Consultant for UrbanTech Ltd., began working with the Ak-Chin Indian Community nearly 20 years ago, he found the Community to be “one of the most welcoming.” Though Entz had worked with other tribes outside the state and went on to work with a number of other Arizona tribes, his experience was often distinctly different. “I learned very quickly that Ak-Chin is extremely proactive in expanded investments in economic development, partnering, marketing, and accelerated economic growth,” said Entz. “That’s not just different than other tribes; it’s different than most municipalities including cities, counties, and entire regions.”

Learning about foreign cultures can be fun and rewarding, and it’s no different when gaining insight into American Indian tribes. Our approach may be different, but our desire for mutual success is the same.