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Conference on international trade seeks to mix Native American ways with Western business models

Marisa Favero

Professor Rebecca Soci gives a speech at the Chaco Canyon Conference about cultural sovereignty on March 24.

All roads lead to Chaco Canyon, and one day, they may lead straight to the World Trade Organization. This was the idea behind the All Roads Lead to Chaco Canyon conference, the first conference to focus specifically on the possibility of native nations engaging in international trade.

The conference took place March 23 at Casino Del Sol, one of the primary sponsors of the event, and on Saturday, March 24, at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law, which was also a sponsor. 

Joseph Austin and Adam Crepelle organized the conference. Both men are enrolled at the UA James E. Rogers College of Law. Austin is pursuing a doctorate of law and Crepelle a masters of law.

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The conference addressed a multitude of issues regarding economic expansion in Native American land, which is made up of native communities on or near reservations. 

Native Americans living on reservations face serious problems, including high poverty rates tied to a lack of well-paying jobs on reservations, particularly those without casinos. 

Austin, Cripelle and other speakers at the conference said a possible solution may lie in international trade.

“Drinking, depression, substance abuse, suicide — all these things are tied to unemployment,” Austin said. “If you could bring in international trade, you decrease your unemployment rates … When you put people to work, your standard of living goes up.” 

However, engaging in said trade would not be simple.

Prior to European contact, native nations had wide-reaching trade networks that encapsulated the Americas. Trading hubs emerged, such as Chaco Canyon in present-day New Mexico. 

Nowadays, few tribes engage in wide-scale trade, and almost none involve themselves in international trade. 

“Since the U.S. has taken over, that’s basically been the whole colonial mission to stifle tribal economies so you can civilize them and basically … take their resources,” Cripelle said. 

The conference featured some of the top experts in native law, as well as Native American businessmen and tribal elders. 

Many of the speakers were professors, colleagues and friends of Austin and Cripelle. The keynote speaker was Raymond Austin, a justice emeritus of the Navajo Supreme Court, professor at Arizona State University and Joseph Austin’s father. 

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The speakers spent many years working in their respective fields, including law, commerce and international trade.

“I’m going to be 76 in May, but I’m still going,” said Ernest Sickey, a former tribal chairman of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana who helped his tribe become the first in Louisiana to gain federal recognition. “I’m going to do this until I drop dead.”

The conference not only offered a chance for featured speakers to talk; it also incorporated open panel discussions that allowed attendees the chance to raise questions regarding the issues surrounding international trade.

A repeated concern was the current reliance on casinos for economic opportunity. While casinos can provide an economic boom for the tribes that have them, multiple speakers were dubious of their stability. Some suggested their growth has stagnated.

“Tribes need economic development,” said Robert Miller, a professor at ASU and Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals for the Grand Ronde Tribe located in Oklahoma. “We’re the poorest people in the United States … We need to diversify our economies; even these big, rich casino tribes need to be doing things. Because who knows, the days of casinos might go away.” 

Other attendees were concerned about whether it was entirely possible to embrace Western capitalism and business practices with native customs and traditions. 

Panelists were optimistic about the possibility of mixing the two seemingly distant ideas. Joseph Austin in particular spoke adamantly about his belief that business and native customs are not mutually exclusive.

“This system that I’m proposing is basically intertwining native ways of doing things with the western system,” Joseph Austin said. “If we start thinking in terms of nationhood, then we’re gonna look like the other nations around the world.”

The most complicated issue regarding international trade for native nations is the precise legality of such a venture. 

Tribes are defined as “domestic dependent states” under the U.S. Supreme Court ruling of Cherokee Nation v. Georgia in 1831. This could mean any trade deals between native and foreign nations would be subject to the approval of the federal government. 

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However, many native peoples desire expanded, if not total, sovereignty for themselves. Sovereignty could mean the opportunity for increased economic development, though the likelihood of this remains unclear.

Though a set plan may not have been reached, the conference offered insight on how native nations might move forward with international trade in the future.

“Native sovereignty knows no bounds,” Joseph Austin said. “And this is what we’re advocating for, is to get away from the federal definition and to start living as nations according to our own way of sovereignty. International trade is part of that.”

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