It's not just identity, language, and song. It's about fundamental well-being and community, which includes economics.


The Bonds Of Colonialism

“They [Indians] are in a state of pupilage; their relation to the United States resembles that of a ward to his guardian.”
Chief Justice John Marshall, 1831

These words of John Marshall in the 1831 Supreme Court opinion on Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia stand in stark contrast to Chief Joseph’s appeal to “be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to talk, think and act for myself.” The dissent of Justices William Johnson and Smith Thompson are even more demeaning than Marshall’s ruling. They doubted that tribes could be elevated to the status of nations because Indians were “so low in the grade of organized society.”

Though people today would abhor the idea that any group of Americans would be treated as wards of the state, that is precisely what Marshall’s ruling and subsequent laws have made American Indians. On reservations, where tribal governments are supposed to be sovereign, persistent colonial institutions have subjected Native Americans to incomplete property rights, weak governance structures, and dependency on appropriations from the U.S. government…

Defining Ideas • April 26, 2019

Wendy Purnell
Washington State Department of Licensing v. Cougar Den, Inc

Imagining U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Neil Gorsuch agreeing seemed impossible during Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing, but that happened in the case of Washington State Department of Licensing v. Cougar Den, Inc. Their agreement, in an opinion written by Justice Gorsuch concurring with the three other liberal justices, is the result of both the liberal Ginsberg and the libertarian Gorsuch standing for individual rights.

The case pitted a gasoline transport company owned by Yakama Nation tribal members against Washington state taxing authorities. The state wanted to tax Cougar Den for importing gasoline from out-of-state to stations on the reservation using public highways. Cougar Den refused to pay the $3.6 million tax bill, citing an 1855 treaty between the Yakama Nation and the U.S. government reserving the Yakamas’ “right, in common with citizens of the United States, to travel upon all public highways.”

Most Native American taxation cases center around whether tribes or states have taxation jurisdiction. Without taxation authority, tribal governments must depend on the federal government which now supplies, albeit poorly, public services  As legal scholar Robert Miller asked at a recent conference, “how do you exercise sovereignty if you have no money? Who pays the tribal police? Who builds the tribal courthouse?” 

Had the Court focused on tax jurisdiction, it is unlikely that Ginsburg, with her record of opposition to tribal sovereignty, would have joined Gorsuch.

Because the defendant was a company, not the tribe, the case was, in words of Justice Gorsuch, about “the ability of tribal members to bring their goods to and from market” and the court’s job was to adopt an “interpretation most consistent with the treaty’s original meaning.” The Gorsuch-Ginsburg concurrence concluded that “the treaty doesn’t just guarantee tribal members the right to travel on the highways free of most restrictions on their movement; it also guarantees tribal members the right to move goods freely to and from market using these highways.”

In writing the concurring opinion in Cougar Den, Gorsuch affirmed two important freedoms. First, it recognizes that the freedom to travel was vital to the Yakamas who were careful to ensure that “they would not be made prisoners on their reservation.” Second, it preserves the Yakamas’ “preexisting right to take goods to and from market freely throughout their traditional trading area.”

These same freedoms were articulated by Chief Joseph in 1879: “Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to talk, think, and act for myself.”

A recent conference co-hosted by the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana focused on these same themes. The conference title — All Roads Lead to Chaco Canyon—might confuse anyone not familiar with pre-contact Indian economies. Coushatta Tribal Chairman David Sickey explained that Chaco Canyon, in New Mexico, “was a cultural center with far-reaching commerce,” Just as Chaco Canyon was an important trading hub between AD 900 and 1150, Chairman Sickey dedicated the conference “to helping tribal nations re-engage with the global economy ... We are here to share forward-looking ideas for tribal entrepreneurship and trade.”

Barriers to trade in Indian Country go beyond taxes on gasoline transported on public highways. On reservations, property rights are incomplete. Indian land is held in trust by the federal government, making it off limits as a source of collateral for the loans most entrepreneurs rely on for start-up capital. Patrice Kunesh, a vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis explained to the conference that "Property systems provide a fundamental framework for how markets and economies operate. Well defined property rights are pre-conditions to successful economic development.” 

The rule of law is also unclear on reservations, making outsiders hesitant to do business in Indian Country. Nancy Vermeulen, whose finance company in Billings, Montana, makes loans to Indians, told Forbes Magazine, “We take on such a huge extra risk with someone from the reservation. If I knew contracts would be enforced, then I could do a lot more business there.” This is why Raymond Austin, Justice Emeritus of the Navajo Nation Supreme Court, advised conference participants that “it is important to work toward an independent tribal justice system.”

As Native Americans work to renew Indian economies from the ground up, the decision reached by Gorsuch and his liberal colleagues in Cougar Den is significant because recognizes the importance of individual freedom for Native Americans. Whether conservative, liberal, or libertarian, justice begins with the individual.

This op-ed originally appeared at Indian Country Today.

Wendy Purnell
Native American Heritage: It’s Not What You Think

Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to talk, think and act for myself — and I will obey every law or submit to the penalty. Chief Joseph, Washington, D.C., 14 January 1879

From protests and politics, to pop culture, Americans have begun to pay more attention to the continent’s indigenous peoples. The recent PBS series Native America offers a glimpse of the advanced civilizations that existed before European contact. The documentary film Rumble finally gives Native Americans “credit for influencing a vast amount of popular music.” A record number of Native American candidates were on mid-term ballots across the country, and Kansas and New Mexico elected the first two Native American women to the U.S. Congress. To recognize “the remarkable legacies and accomplishments of Native Americans,” as Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) put it, the Senate passed its annual resolution declaring Native American Heritage Month. The legislation’s co-sponsor, Senator Tom Udall (D-NM), described Native American Month as an opportunity to “celebrate the indelible mark that Native American arts, languages, cultures, and peoples have left on New Mexico and the United States.” The emphasis on language, culture, art, and religion is integral to Native American heritage. But Native American heritage is not just about language and song; that heritage is also about the institutions that once governed and even now could help govern Native American daily lives.

This is the first of three essays aimed at a better understanding of how Native American heritage provides a foundation on which tribes can renew their economies…

Defining Ideas • Feburary 12, 2019

Wendy Purnell
Native Americans in the 20th Century

In August, Terry Anderson spoke at a conference titled “The American West: The History, the Values, the Struggle, and the Legacy of the 19th Century” and hosted by the Aspen Institute.

Along with Indian Country Today editor Mark Trahant, attorney Sheldon Spotted Elk, and archeologist Mark Varien, Terry Anderson discussed the challenges faced in Indian Country today and over the past century.

Martha Sandweiss moderated this panel on “Native Americans in the 20th Century” and, thanks to C-Span3’s HistoryTV, you can watch it online.

Martha Sandweiss moderates a panel with Terry Anderson, Mark Trahant, Sheldon Spotted Elk, and Mark Varien.

Martha Sandweiss moderates a panel with Terry Anderson, Mark Trahant, Sheldon Spotted Elk, and Mark Varien.

Wendy Purnell
Impact of Westward Expansion on Native Americans

In August, Terry Anderson spoke at a conference titled “The American West: The History, the Values, the Struggle, and the Legacy of the 19th Century” and hosted by the Aspen Institute.

Terry Anderson moderated a dicussion on the "Impact of Westward Expansion on Native Americans” with Yale University’s Ned Blackhawk and the University of Colorado’s Patricia Limerick. Thanks to C-Span3’s American History TV for making the conservation available online.

Terry Anderson moderates a panel featuring Yale University’s Ned Blackhawk and the Center of the American West’s Patricia Limerick.

Terry Anderson moderates a panel featuring Yale University’s Ned Blackhawk and the Center of the American West’s Patricia Limerick.

Wendy Purnell
Missing Property Rights on Native American Lands

On tribal lands, everything is more complicated. Adam Crepelle, visiting professor at Southern University Law Center talks to the Cato Institute’s Caleb Brown about obstacles to economic development in Indian Country.

On tribal lands, Native Americans are lacking key property rights. It’s hindering development on those so-called sovereign lands. Adam Crepelle comments.

Wendy Purnell
Unlocking Dead Capital for Indigenous People feat. Hernando de Soto

Last year, the Hoover Institution launched its Renewing Indigenous Economies Research Initiative to understand what institutions work best for local peoples, economies, and cultures.

The annual Indigenous Economies policy symposium will update the D.C. community on what has been called a "renaissance in tribal self-governance" and an "economic civil rights movement." This year's event featured the founders of the Alliance for Renewing Indigenous Economies, an international group of scholars and tribal leaders dedicated to secure land rights, self-government, and fiscal independence for indigenous communities.

Wendy Purnell
Why Indigenous Nations Fail feat. James Robinson

Renewing Indigenous Economics Forum talk by James A. Robinson Professor, University of Chicago, on Why Indian Nations Fail on Monday, September 24, 2018 in Stauffer Auditorium, Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Professor James Robinson delivered a keynote address on September 24, 2018. Drawing on his award winning, co-authored book, Why Nations FailRobinson explained how different indigenous societies adapted their institutions over centuries, allowing them to survive and in many cases thrive. Robinson discussed how governance structures thrust upon them by modern nation states have stifled this evolutionary process and led to economic stagnation for many indigenous economies. By understanding why indigenous nations have failed, indigenous societies can renew their cultures and their economies.

Robinson's lecture was followed by comments from Manny Jules, Chief Commissioner of the First Nations Tax Commission, and Te Maire Tau, Director of the Ngāi Tahu Research Center at the University of Canterbury.

Wendy Purnell
Whispering Pines Indian Band Chief on Kinder Morgan dispute

"I want you to respect my jurisdiction. I want you to invest in my community. But most of all I want you to keep the oil in the damn pipe."
Michael LeBourdais

The Whispering Pines Indian Band is closely watching the dispute over the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. It's among a number communities who've signed mutual benefit agreements with Kinder Morgan. But if the pipeline doesn't go through, the benefits won't flow.

Wendy Purnell
Restoring Tribal Economies

In the nineteenth century, the young nations of the United States and Canada enacted laws designed to undermine indigenous governance and economic independence. North America’s indigenous institutions—like tribal councils, sun dances, and potlatches—had evolved over centuries, but were suddenly declared illegal and replaced by federal programs. In both countries, a diverse set of indigenous governance structures, property rights, and trade networks was replaced by a monolithic system that centralized the provision of goods and services and fostered dependence on federal governments. “The indigenous population of the hemisphere was deprived not only of land and freedom,” observes Hoover fellow Thomas Sowell, but also of “the underlying foundation of cultural traditions on which any society is based.”

In today's indigenous communities we are observing a “renaissance in tribal self-governance” and an “economic civil rights movement.” Put another way, the devolution of power from the Feds to tribes is an experiment in federalism and decentralization—one that appears to be working. The innovation emerging on reservations in the United States can unlock many untapped resources for Native Americans.

Defining Ideas  December 20, 2017

Wendy Purnell
Indigenous Demographics Meets Provincial Fiscal Reality

Each year, Maclean’s presents its year-end Chartapalooza, a guide to making sense of the economy in the year ahead. The Tulo Centre's Andre Le Dressay's chart was included among the most important economic charts to watch in 2018.


"Canada can soon no longer afford to run the lives of indigenous people. Perhaps 2018 could be the indigenous policy fiscal tipping point for Canada."

Maclean's  December 5, 2017, via the Tulo Centre

Wendy Purnell
Creating the Alliance for Renewing Indigenous Economies

This summer, Alliance founders from Canada and New Zealand gathered in Kamloops, Brtitish Columbia. The Tulo Centre captured some of the conversation about the similarities and differences between the Maori experience and the First Nations experience. "We are joined by the Pacific, it doesn't divide us," explains Manny Jules.

Listen to Tulo's podcast to explore the importance of jurisdiction and the revolutionary ideas of the Alliance for Renewing Indigenous Economies. It isn't about just identity, language, and song. It's actually about fundamental well being and community, which includes economics as its underpinning.

Juli Holloway from the First Nations Tax Commission
Manny Jules from the Tulo Centre of Indigenous Economics
Te Maire Tau, Darren Russell, and Rinito Davis from the Ngāi Tahu Research Centre at the University of Canterbury

The Tulo Centre September 6, 2017

Wendy Purnell
Zuckerberg meets Native American poverty

The Blackfeet, like so many tribes are searching for ways to free themselves from colonial bondage, and there is hope. Lance Morgan, managing partner of a national tribal law firm, noted in the Arizona State Law Journal, “The economic rise of tribes in the last twenty-five years, largely due to long term impact of self-determination, gaming, natural resource development, and the ancillary rise of tribal corporations, has changed the basic economic and legal equation.”

The Hill • July 24, 2017

Wendy Purnell
Jurisdiction critical for First Nations in nation-to-nation relationship

Confederation was based on the fiction that First Nations title and jurisdiction didn’t exist — a founding myth that has been busted many times by the courts in the last 40 years.
Now is the time to commit ourselves to creating protected First Nation powers and revenue authorities within the FMA. This would help complete Confederation and bring about reconciliation. It would reject the notion that indigenous people can’t govern themselves. It would provide an option to implement many recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It would provide a true nation-to-nation option.

As we enter the 150th year of Confederation, we are ready for the dawn of a new era for this country.

Vancouver Sun • July 9, 2017

Wendy Purnell