Alexandra Harmon: Economic Disparities in Native American Communities

Rich Indians: Native People and the Problem of Wealth in American History, by Alexandra Harmon[This article is crossposted at]

We welcome a guest post today from Alexandra Harmon, author of Rich Indians: Native People and the Problem of Wealth in American History, which is now available in a new paperback edition. Long before lucrative tribal casinos sparked controversy, Native Americans amassed other wealth that provoked intense debate about the desirability, morality, and compatibility of Indian and non-Indian economic practices. Rich Indians not only compels us to look beyond stereotypes of greedy whites and poor Indians, but also convincingly demonstrates that Indians deserve a prominent place in American economic history and in the history of American ideas through the twentieth century.

In the following guest post, Harmon explores the distribution of wealth in Indian communities and the questions that arise when these communities confront economic disparities.


I recently chanced across news of a wide gap between rich and poor in a seemingly improbable place. The Rapid City Journal reported that the counties in South Dakota where income inequality is greatest are counties that encompass Indian reservations.

Because the poverty on Sioux reservations is notorious, people who see only the headline of that article might assume that the income disparity is between very poor Indians and comparatively wealthy nearby non-Indians. But the state demographer attributed the high incomes to the “presence” on reservations of “well-paying government jobs,” and his statement implied that it is Indians who hold those jobs.

As tribal governments have grown during four decades of favorable federal policy, they have enabled some reservation residents to prosper from government employment while many other Indians remain in apparently intractable poverty. This development has attracted little outside attention, although it is implicit in media coverage of alleged corruption in tribal governments. It has low visibility even in Indian-owned media. But I know from years of serving as an attorney for Indian tribes that it is a cause of concern in many reservation communities. Because tribal governments are often the greatest source of possible income for community members, the governments’ policy choices can decisively influence a fundamental aspect of tribal culture—economic relations. In many cases the choice is seen essentially as one between individualism and indigenous communitarianism. On more than one reservation where I worked, for instance, there was ongoing contention about whether tribal ownership of business enterprises would promote equitable improvement in members’ economic circumstances or would concentrate income in a few politically connected families while discouraging private Indian enterprise.

In the tribes I advised, the government-ownership development model prevailed, as it does now in much of Indian country. The model has a few venerable precedents—the Menominee Tribe’s timber business comes to mind—but widespread embrace of tribal government enterprise is relatively recent. In the case of commercial gambling enterprises, it is mandated by the 1989 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

Along with the growth of tribal bureaucracies, this turn toward tribal capitalism has given Indians new reasons to articulate, ponder, and debate some of the basic principles that guide or should guide their economic affairs—to consider in particular whether economic aims and relations in Indian communities do or should differ from those that predominate in the United States.

While tribe members’ thoughts on these questions will necessarily reflect their twenty-first-century circumstances, legacies of the past are likely to influence their thinking too. Those legacies may include an aboriginal tradition of admiration for individual generosity but also generations of exposure to a contrasting non-Indian ethos of wealth accumulation and self-reliance. In addition, there may be a tribal history of occasions when changing economic opportunities and practices caused community members’ fortunes to diverge, triggering disputes about basic principles. Controversies about infusions or distributions of wealth have in fact roiled Native societies at times in the past, just as they have periodically agitated non-Indian Americans.

When I set out to write a book about reactions in the past to Indian affluence, my main purpose was not to expose and analyze intra-Indian controversies about economic inequality. I was more intent on documenting debates between Indians and non-Indians at times when Indians had surprisingly substantial wealth. But I discovered that participants in such cross-cultural debates often focused on alleged or actual economic inequality in each other’s societies, and that focus inevitably prompted them to examine and either defend or critique the fairness of their own societies’ economic relations.

So the book I produced—Rich Indians: Native People and the Problem of Wealth in American History—samples episodes in the late 1700s, early 1800s, and late 1900s when some Indians’ wealth set their fellow Indians to talking and writing about the aims, values, and social relations that Indians should promote and embody by their economic activities. Like tribe members today, those people had to articulate the sort of economic relations they desired and think about the social-political structures and practices that could ensure such relations. Their dilemmas and responses are an aspect of Indians’ history that history scholars have largely overlooked until recently, but it is history that has become salient as tribes today create successful business enterprises, tribal governments employ more and more people, and data such as that relayed by the Rapid City Journal comes to light.

Alexandra Harmon is professor of American Indian studies at the University of Washington. Her books include Rich Indians: Native People and the Problem of Wealth in American History, The Power of Promises: Perspectives on Northwest Indian Treaties, and Indians in the Making: Ethnic Relations and Indian Identities around Puget Sound.