In the margins of society, more than 578 federally recognized Native Nations exist within the US. (US Bureau of Indian Affairs 2021). The US Constitution, federal and state statutory and common law, acknowledge limited Native Nations’ sovereign rights. Although Native Nations share some commonalities with other marginalized Indigenous peoples colonized by Europeans, Brayboy’s (2005) Tribal Critical Race Theory (hereinafter TribalCrit) draws attention the ways in which Indian Country, Native Peoples’ physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual space1 is unique. US institutions constrain and enable Native Nations to create Nation-owned business enterprises, to benefit a Nation and its People, as an exercise in sovereignty and self-determination. We examine six Native Nations’ social enterprises (hereinafter NNSE) through a TribalCrit lens to model this unique organizational form in its marginalized social context. NNSE carries the spirit and hopes of Native Peoples into the fraught business realm and provides a distinctive but useful model for social responsibility.
This study uses Tribal Critical Race Theory to develop a new model which describes the unique interface between native nations social enterprises and western culture. Although previous work in TribalCrit theory (Brayboy 2005) has created a powerful framework for analyzing the uniqueness of tribal social structures and institutions, this study is the first to use real-world data to systematically link tribal critical race theory to modern Native organizations. Our inductive study adds to TribalCrit theory by revealing the ways in which contemporary Native organizations span institutional boundaries with mainstream society in a manner that is simultaneously integrative with western culture, but also protective of Native cultural sovereignty.
Critical Legal Studies (CLS) and Critical Race Theory (CRT) (Crenshaw 2010; 2016), once radical fringe theory, is now mainstream in academic literature.2 CRT exposes racial power dynamics in society and challenges Euro-American positivist research constructs (Braun et al. 2014). CRT’s import is understanding racial issues to provoke change in hierarchical legal and social structures that perpetuate racism. TribalCrit, with theoretical roots in CRT, is a nine-tenet framework that is specific to Native Nations and Peoples in the US (Brayboy 2005). It posits the ways in which law, societal institutions, culture and government oppress Native Nations and how Native Nations respond to this environment.
Native Nations remain largely hidden under powerful, endemic stereotypes, myths and other ‘narratives of erasure’ (Dunbar-Ortiz & Gilio-Whitaker 2016: 3). Through TribalCrit, ‘what we have to say about ourselves through our stories and perspectives—colonization is unmasked, exposed, confronted, and transformed’ (Writer 2008: 11). TribalCrit lays bare endemic colonialism, white supremacy and racism as tools to destroy Native Peoples through assimilation (Brayboy 2005). It wrests control from western hegemony to Native voices, meaning, sovereignty, self-determination and adaptation. TribalCrit directs attention to U.S. law oppressing Native Peoples. Brayboy (2005) introduced TribalCrit to explore Native perspectives on American education. Likewise, TribalCrit elucidates NNSE through Native authors and Native executive stories to define and confront positive and negative forces that may transform Native Nations.
Tenet 1 states ‘colonization is endemic to society’ (Brayboy 2005: 429), distinguishing TribalCrit from other CRT; it is specific to Indigenous People who continue to endure colonization. Native Peoples3 still endure and resist US law and policy aimed at genocide, extinction, removal, oppression, cultural destruction, termination of rights and assimilation (see, e.g., Deloria 1995; Deloria & Lytle 1998; Dunbar-Ortiz & Gilo-Whitaker 2016; Krakoff 2012). Scholars recognize that what is seen in dominant culture as ‘history’ has ongoing relevance and meaning to the lived experiences of Native Peoples (Grayshield et al. 2015).
TribalCrit is specific to the US and its laws. Tenet 2 is: ‘U.S. policies toward Indigenous peoples are rooted in imperialism, white supremacy, and a desire for material gain’ (Brayboy 2005: 429). Even today, white supremacy and systematic racism permeates much of US society, which negatively affects Native Peoples. The US Constitution Article 1, Section 8 grants Congress exclusive authority to regulate commerce with sovereign Indian tribes. In 1831, the US Supreme Court labeled Native Nations as ‘domestic dependent nations,’4 enabling federal control, subjugation and exploitation (see, e.g., Chaudhuri 1985; Deloria 1995; Deloria & Lytle 1998). Over centuries to today, western ideas, theories, legal forms and racism persist in oppressing Indian Country (see, e.g., Brayboy 2005; Kennedy et al. 2017).
US policy and practices conform Native Nations’ governmental structures largely to western norms. Cornell and Kalt (2007) recommend community participation to create the best Constitutions. Nevertheless, each Native Nation’s Constitution, which structures its government, undergoes US Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) review and approval.5 Federal recognition, a legal status, is a predicate to exercise a Nation’s sovereign rights. The US government controls federal recognition, holds veto rights over Native Nations’ governmental structures and regulates Native Nations. This is endemic colonialism.
Ultimately, as TribalCrit tenet 6 expresses, US ‘[g]overnmental policies and educational policies toward Indigenous peoples are intimately linked around the problematic goal of assimilation’ (Brayboy 2005: 429). Controversial practices include removing Native children to boarding schools, restricting their languages and cultural practices, and adopting Native children to white parents. Over time, the US government terminated many individual and Native Nations’ federal recognition status to induce assimilation and eradicate Native culture and identity (see, e.g., Otis 1973; Ward 2007). Conversely, Native Nations seek to build Nations, preserve culture and unique identities. Native science consists of simple yet profound thoughts: ‘everything is imbued with “spirit” or energy…Everything is related, that is, connected in dynamic, interactive, and mutually reciprocal relationships’ (Cajete 2000: 75). Native Nations oppose government action relative to sacred sites, treaty lands, reservations and projects such as oil and gas pipelines that threaten water resources (see, e.g., Ambarian 2019; Henry, Peredo & Verbos 2017; Sisk 2020).
Law permits or inhibits Nation building, which Brayboy et al. (2014: 578) defines as ‘the political, legal, spiritual, educational, and economic processes through which Indigenous peoples engage in to build local capacity to address their educational, health, legal, economic, nutritional, relational, and spatial needs.’ TribalCrit tenet 4 expresses these as desires ‘to obtain and forge tribal sovereignty, tribal autonomy, self-determination, and self-identification’ (Brayboy 2005: 429). US policy denies many sovereign rights to Native Nations. The activist American Indian Movement led to laws, including the 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act,6 which restored substantive legal sovereignty and self-governance rights (Chaudhuri 1985; Jorgenson 2007), enabling Nation-owned business ventures. The US Supreme Court ruling in California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians7 affirmed Native Nation’s gaming rights, which Congress promptly regulated under the American Indian Gaming Act of 1988.8 Indian Country gaming is the primary focus of business research (see, e.g., Akee et al. 2015; Conner & Taggart 2009; Galbraith & Stiles 2003). Our focus differs toward diverse NNSE managed by Native executives, including retail, hotel, resort, technology, manufacturing, real estate and other businesses.
NNSE is subject to western culture’s business law and norms in addition to restrictions under federal law. Tenet 3 states: ‘Indigenous peoples occupy a liminal space that accounts for both the political and racialized natures of our identities’ (Brayboy 2005: 429). A full model of NNSE must account for this space.
NNSE must be modeled using a Native perspective. ‘The concepts of culture, knowledge, and power take on new meaning when examined through an Indigenous lens’ (Brayboy 2005: 429). Responsibility for a Native Nation’s health and well-being are foremost, individual gain is not. Native citizens orient work to serve others (Brayboy et al. 2014); opposite to the self-interest norm underlying western economic business theory (see, e.g., Ferraro et al. 2005; Miller 1999; Verbos, Gladstone & Kennedy 2011). Endemic colonization holding Native Nations to be ‘domestic dependent sovereign nations’9 limits inherent rights to engage with others in their own ways and to direct the future for the people.
Western business norms are not generally harmonious with Native philosophy, culture and values (Verbos, Gladstone & Kennedy 2011). NNSE executives may be pulled toward western business and economic norms, or challenge and resist them, finding a way to maintain Native cultural values such as respect, humility, honesty, integrity, love, bravery and wisdom (Verbos & Humphries 2014), harmony and balance, generosity and holistic thinking (Cajete 2000).
TribalCrit underscores that Native philosophy and culture are aligned with a deep commitment to social responsibility. Tenet 7 is as follows: ‘Tribal philosophies, beliefs, customs, traditions, and visions for the future are central to understanding the lived realities of Indigenous peoples, but they also illustrate the differences and adaptability among individuals and groups’ (Brayboy, 2005: 23). Community is ‘the context in which the person comes to know relationship, responsibility, and participation in the life of one’s people’ (Cajete 2000: 86). Many Native people deeply respect and relate to Mother Earth and all things created metaphysically and spiritually (Cajete 2000; Cordova 2007; Wildcat 2009). Cajete (2000: 186) characterizes Native Peoples’ relational ethic, a deep mental, spiritual and material relationship and responsibilities to the land and nature as ‘ensoulment.’ All things created are animate with spirit, including earth, water, rocks, plants, insects, four-legged and two-legged beings (Cajete 2000; LaDuke 1999; Verbos & Humphries 2015). Without TribalCrit, this aspect of NNSE cannot come into focus.
TribalCrit tenets stress that a Native perspective exposes the phenomena that erode or enhance Native Peoples’ culture and sovereignty. We examine six Nations’ NNSE, headquartered in five states and four regions, to model NNSE as practiced by Native executives. Cutting across six Native Nations’ NNSE enhances credibility (see, e.g., Patton 2002; Yin 2003). This criterion sampling (Patton 2002), also used in TribalCrit analysis by Grayshield et al. (2015), is appropriate because we seek only Native people who are involved at a high level in NNSE. When seeking participants, we found that non-Natives manage many NNSEs.
TribalCrit connects theory and practice in Native ways of being. As Brayboy (2005) identifies in Tenet 8, ‘Stories are not separate from theory; they make up theory and are, therefore, real and legitimate sources of data and ways of being’ (p. 430). Unlike positivist approaches in which Native phenomena are compared to western paradigms and labeled inferior, ideally Native researchers lead, design, control and report it (Braun et al. 2014, citing Denzin et al. 2008; Kovach 2009; Smith 2012; Wilson 2008). The authors, Native business professors, used 24 open-ended questions to allow participants to tell their story and perspective on NNSE. Consistent with TribalCrit analysis, Native stories are sources of data and theory (Brayboy 2005; Hart et al. 2017). Consistent with TribalCrit’s ninth tenet, research should empower and benefit Indigenous communities and cultures (Battiste 2008), potentially informing practice and social change (Brayboy 2005; Hart et al. 2017).
Our protocol requires anonymity and confidentiality. As such, we assigned pseudonyms to participants and Nations (see Table 1). We erased recordings and analyzed transcripts to unearth assumptions underlying NNSE, within a Nation through an NNSE executive’s story and across six Nations. We examined transcripts in a comparative process to build the model. Table 1 lists basic information about the participants and their Nations.
|YEAR FORMED||PARTICIPANT PSEUDONYM||NATION PSEUDONYM||NUMBER OF ENTERPRISES|
A Native Nation operationalizes sovereignty through self-determination (Brayboy et al. 2014). NNSE, at first blush, indicates Nation building, autonomy and self-determination, but our participants describe a board governance structure and a parent or holding company for NNSE, common western business structures. Three Nations incorporated a parent entity and some NNSE subsidiaries under their respective Nation’s business laws; the other three Nations have unincorporated entities with a business board of directors and then subsidiary enterprises.
NNSEs use western organizational forms: partnerships, corporations and LLCs, under federal, state or the Nation’s law. Entity design primarily furthers western business goals, to minimize federal and state taxes and limit legal liability. For example, the US Bureau of Indian Affairs website links to a model limited liability code that mirrors western law, except to reserve sovereign immunity and provide for LLCs forming under a Nation’s laws (Michigan Economic Development Corporation 2020).
Wolf Nation’s CEO, Michael, decides the type of entity and choice of state, federal or the Nation’s law by balancing any specific benefits to the Nation, such as sovereign immunity or tax advantages, against how bankers, partners or others view the enterprise. Such considerations have no Native cultural grounding. Bear Nation chose to incorporate under its corporate code: ‘It gave us flexibility, tax immunities, regulatory protection, allowed for less risk, so the businesses would fall within the corporation and would not affect the tribe as a whole or our gaming operations.’ These priorities mimic western business norms. Bear, Eagle and Wolf Nations recently adopted LLC codes, and Fish Nation plans to adopt an LLC code. This western practice is diffusing throughout Indian Country. Despite being a Nation’s law, state law is barely distinguishable.
For other businesses, NNSE executives chose state law. For example, Wolf Nation acquired an industrial business using a state LLC. Eagle Nation’s holding company forms state entities when it partners with non-Native businesses. Jay states that his Nation must adopt the white men’s ways to do business.
Although using a Nation’s sovereignty to create business laws captures an aspect of self-determination (TribalCrit tenet 4), both NNSE organizations and reporting structures mirror and privilege colonizer’s ways of doing business, implicating TribalCrit tenets 1, 2 and 6. Western business, financial, state and local governments recognize and legitimize familiar business structures. In this way, NNSE organizational forms assimilate (TribalCrit tenet 6) and do not incorporate Native spirit, language and culture to create an adaptive structure for economic development as may better express who the People are and how they may maintain a connection between the past and future for the Nation.
All six NNSE executives note problems functioning in mainstream western business culture. The hierarchical western business forms are taken-for-granted, even in NNSE. It would require greater creativity to operationalize sovereignty through adapting Native culture into flatter or more embedded and accountable NNSE organizational structures. At a minimum, it could be beneficial to imbue organizational structures through Native traditions and the Nation’s language that may better align the business structures with the Nation’s shared values.
Several Nations’ NNSEs obtain federal or state minority-owned business certification, specifically to bid on government contracts. Sun Nation’s management strives to develop ventures that use government certifications to gain a competitive advantage ‘for bidding government contracts… under the buy Indian provision in the Defense Appropriation Act.’ Michael (Wolf Nation) believes sovereignty is its strength, ‘to be a Nation, to be decision makers and a business owner.’ Leveraging sovereignty for profit is adaptive under TribalCrit tenet 6, except to the extent that it focuses more on western notions of profit and acquisitiveness (TribalCrit tenet 2).
Eagle Nation operates several NNSEs as U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) 8(a) certified companies, and some have international operations. A few of Bear Nation’s technology and construction-related companies are SBA 8(a) certified and others are applying for certification. Turtle Nation’s Department of Natural Resources started a water lab for government purposes. It later expanded as an NNSE conducting commercial drug tests. This SBA 8(a) certified, minority-owned entity has federal and state government contracting opportunities, as well as operating in the private sector.
Wolf Nation targets NNSE acquisitions based on comprehensive business criteria and clear strategic goals, which is consistent with non-Native business practices (see, e.g., Rosner 2006). Wolf Nation has a separate strategic objective to capture spending within the Nation’s economy by creating businesses that will provide goods and services to the Nation. This priority is consistent with TribalCrit tenet 4, forging Nation-building. The processes are not always entirely smooth, as many citizens view their Nation’s for-profit businesses with a skeptical eye.
NNSE objectives across Nations are to generate revenue and create jobs for its citizens, a social responsibility essential to a Nation’s sustainability. Although the Native executives use western business terms and one explicitly acknowledges using white men’s business norms, NNSE businesses reflect Nation-building and community needs rather than maximization of profits.
NNSE meets a Nation’s needs through jobs for citizens, access to fair and/or reasonably priced services, and funds to its government. Funding supports social services and cultural practices. To some extent, NNSEs in this study weave in Native culture, ethics and science to inform business decision making. NNSE executive stories across all six Nations reveal that NNSE emphasizes employment and social benefits for its Nation’s citizens as end goals over profitability, which is consistent with other Indigenous research (Anderson et al. 2006). Social purpose and organizational sustainability drivers are key drivers (Pearce 2003). Fish and Turtle Nations start companies primarily to create jobs, not often an underlying motive in US business, but more prevalent in Native American firms (Stewart & Schwartz 2007).
All six Nations’ NNSEs use Native hiring preferences as a path towards the Nation’s future economic and social sustainability. A legacy of colonization, racism, myths and stereotypes (see, e.g., Dunbar-Ortiz & Gilio-Whitaker 2016), Native people have the highest poverty rates at 27%, with several reservation-based Nations exceeding 30% (Macartney et al. 2013). Eventually, Wolf Nation’s Michael wants its citizens to manage all NNSEs. Unfortunately, NNSE executives’ stories suggest that this may be difficult to put into practice. Jay (Sun Nation) expresses a frustration that most Native-held positions are at low organizational levels:
At this point, we are probably about 55% Native American and we are probably about 30% [Sun Nation]. The issue that we have is that most of this 30% are in lower-level positions…Because we are running this multi-million-dollar corporation, it is very important that these individuals have the capacity to do the jobs. And the reality is that it takes a long time… You need the experienced people in order to run the company well. You just can’t go in and anoint people and expect that knowledge.
Bear Nation’s Lucas has similar sentiments about Native preferences. He adds that to fulfill future needs for technical expertise, internship programs:
It is a challenge because in some of these areas where it is very technical, it is difficult to find Native talent that has that kind of experience. So that is why I mentioned internships. It’s very important that we get our people, whether they are our tribal members or from another tribe, to have programs, to get them up quickly to become management material or give them the technical skills that they need to be able to assist us.
Nick’s frustrations fall into a different paradigm. For example, he finds Turtle Nation’s cultural practices ‘more forgiving within a tribal structure than in an outside one’ where employees might be retained rather than fired. Nick also expresses concern that its Native hiring preference may lead to an under-qualified workforce when it is ‘diluted into if that person is a tribal member, they should get the job.’ He views community focus as an inapposite priority, that is, misaligning it toward social impact rather than profit:
The strategy should be to make money, but a lot of the time it is job creation. Our enterprises haven’t been real successful on their own… For a non-tribal business, the focus is more on profit than it is on employment. The tribal side, the focus is more geared towards employing tribal people than it is actually making a dollar. If it was about making money, we probably would’ve closed down half of our enterprises years ago (Emphasis added).
Nick’s story clearly privileges dominant US business culture’s definitions of success and demonstrates conformity with mainstream business education ideas (TribalCrit tenets 2 and 6). Nick wants Turtle Nation to reinvest more in NNSE to build a more robust Native economy. He expresses the very real concern that Turtle Nation’s self-sufficiency may be at risk (TribalCrit tenet 4).
Other stories reveal a challenge in getting non-Native managers in NNSEs to understand and incorporate cultural practices. According to both Lucas (Bear Nation) and Kevin (Eagle Nation), it is easier to incorporate cultural practices on the reservation. Kevin (Eagle Nation) describes the conundrum that Native culture and values, especially with off-reservation locations, can be difficult to maintain. One issue with off-reservation employees is the extent to which they comprehend that NNSE exists to create positive change for the Nation and its People. When faced with such problems, Native executives express to us an unwillingness to compromise Native values.
Unlike US business culture, where for-profit companies create individual private wealth, NNSE profits benefit the Nation. All but Wolf Nation’s holding companies distribute a share of the profits to the Nation’s government which allocates these funds. Lucas affirms that profits support the Nation’s government and its services—that which sustains the Nation. Bear Nation’s NNSE, by charter, returns 80% of profits to the Nation, funding reservation projects, activities, such as ‘health care, insurance, elder care, schools, building roads…that are a big part of who we are and what we do’ (Lucas, Bear Nation).
Sun Nation’s NNSE businesses return a percentage of the profits to the Nation for governmental services; Jay expresses this as its reason for being and solemn responsibility:
Basically, we’re the lifeblood of the tribe when it comes to business resources. So, we can’t fail. We can’t. There are too many people depending on us.
Kevin explains that Eagle Nation NNSE’s mission is to enable self-sufficiency by returning profits to the Nation and creating citizen jobs. According to Fish Nation’s Cal, ‘we want to take care of people and take care of community…all the profits go to the general fund of the tribe.’ Wolf Nation’s goal is to be both a revenue source and a career pipeline for the Nation:
We are constantly investing back in our community to build capacity, grow, to provide opportunities and a better place not just to live, a better position economically for the next generation and the next and the next because we are always reinvesting back versus squeezing it all out to some shareholders.
Turtle Nation’s NNSE contributes regional business and social efforts that benefit both the Nation and off-reservation communities. Bear, Eagle, Fish and Turtle Nations engage in philanthropy, contributing to local community foundations and local and state nonprofits. Generosity and taking care of those with the greatest needs are traditional Native values (LaDuke 1999).
NNSE include some adaptive practices to inculcate a Nation’s cultural values, knowledge, traditions, and responsibilities to the Earth, past and future generations. NNSE executives incorporate some environmental sustainability practices and, in this way, reflect Native ecology. Cal explains the interconnectedness:
…we do everything in our power to try to eliminate or minimize the amount of environmental destruction or damage that we [do]… especially in a big resort atmosphere [resort name] with water and garbage… we design our facilities to accommodate people’s desire to be socially interactive… Sustainable in the sense of environmental. We do our best where it is cost effective to do so. We care a lot about our environment…. We have a focus on it.
Wolf Nation’s charter stresses land preservation. Michael states that sustainability is critical to Wolf Nation. Turtle Nation’s managers evaluate their environmental practices to ensure that they are consistent with their goals and the Nation’s cultural values, including whether their ancestors would approve and whether it will benefit future generations. This demonstrates a Native lens on decision making (TribalCrit tenet 5), infusing a Nation’s ecological beliefs into NNSE (TribalCrit tenet 7). Bear and Eagle Nations generate renewable solar and wind power, selling excess back to the power grid. Bear Nation’s buildings are sustainable and LEED certified. Fish Nation commits to sustainable business operations. Solar arrays, wind energy and LEED certification come from mainstream business culture (TribalCrit tenets 2 and 6); but are balanced by supporting ways to embed Native ecology into NNSE (TribalCrit tenet 7).
Nick (Turtle Nation) and Jay (Sun Nation) tell us that Native values drive their decisions. Social responsibility for the Nation and a desire to sustain future generations is integral to NNSE. For Jay, past leaders’ wisdom created present opportunities and current NNSE leaders are responsible for Mother Earth and seven generations. Bear Nation’s goal is that its NNSE will last seven generations and beyond. Cal expresses that Fish Nation’s franchise, with corporate requirements, still manages to incorporate some Native culture into policy such as extended bereavement leave that respects Native traditions.10
All six Nations incorporate Native ethical values into NNSE. Wolf Nation’s Michael emphasized that the ethical core for Wolf Nation’s NNSE is to follow the Seven Grandfather Teachings or NNSE would change ‘who we are,’ something that he emphasized must not happen. The Seven Grandfather Teachings are human responsibilities to balance love, respect, wisdom, humility, truth, honesty and bravery in all things (see, e.g., Verbos & Humphries 2014). NNSE executives strive for a positive, sustainable social impact on the Nation and local community.
This study analyzes six distinct Native Nations’ approaches to NNSE with TribalCrit, and our results are modeled in Figure 1. The dashed line around NNSE reflects a permeable boundary subject to potentially conflicting forces. The background represents all of US society, while the dashed circle is Indian Country—a boundary permeated by colonization and western influence. Our study finds NNSE straddling US and Native culture. The break in the circle wherein TribalCrit tenet 3 recognizes that Native peoples and political structures occupy this space between. TribalCrit tenets applied in NNSE depict forces affecting NNSE.
Across the stories, NNSE executives profess strong responsibilities to the Nation, its citizens, and, at times, the local community. NNSE exists as a social responsibility to a Nation on multiple levels—economically, socially and culturally. Native Nations undertake economic development with the goal of Nation building, developing sustainability and asserting more control over their traditional lands and resources. NNSE organizational structures, forms and practices evince strong colonial influence and assimilation into western ways. Some NNSE is purely economic—Native ownership of businesses that operate largely separate from the Nation itself. The idea that business is separate from and not directly accountable to the community stems from western ‘best practices.’ This is not to suggest that Tribal council politics would benefit NNSE corporate governance. Rather, we acknowledge that accountability mechanisms intended to mimic western practices do not translate perfectly to NNSE.
All six Nations utilize NNSE governance structures, business laws and organizational forms patterned after western business. This is not surprising since NNSE must interact with business and finance in US business and society that legitimizes these forms. Figure 1 depicts these contrasting forces. Tenets 1, 2 and 6 represent forces that westernize NNSE and incentivize hierarchical structures and western business norms. Yet there is a fundamental distinction. NNSE boards and executives create social wealth for the entire Nation rather than creating private wealth. Although they function as a tool for wealth creation, NNSE risks assimilating into dominant business culture and amoral economic theory. NNSEs routinely waive sovereign immunity and Native court jurisdiction when dealing with non-Native businesses. These Native Nations ultimately sacrifice sovereign rights to conduct business and acquire needed resources to further economic development. If Native ways de-legitimize NNSE, it suppresses adaptations.
Participants deem political influences to be dysfunctional interference, having potential to undermine NNSE financial sustainability. An issue remains as to whether a business board of directors is a good community accountability mechanism. Each Nations’ political structures adopted under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934,11 represent western ideas about Native governance (see, e.g., Gladstone 2017). Thus, forces emanating from TribalCrit tenets 1 through 3 affect whether NNSE furthers TribalCrit tenet 4’s laudable goals.
At the same time, the economies created strengthen Native Nation building, sovereignty, self-determination, cultural philosophies and beliefs. Our research indicates that NNSE uniquely represents at least some aspects of a Nation’s needs, goals and future. NNSE philanthropic, cultural and sustainability practices honor the Native Nation’s culture, tradition, spirit and adaptability. Figure 1 depicts how we found TribalCrit tenets 5 and 7 expressed in NNSE business practices, accountability and incorporating the Nation’s unique cultural traditions can be critical distinguishing elements creating greater balance. The greater the extent to which executives embed NNSE as interrelated and interdependent with the community, the greater the balance. NNSE initiatives focusing on Native culture, ethics, and ecology illustrate adaptive, self-determinative approaches to environmental stewardship, social responsibility and ethical decision making.
The stories create a picture that NNSE focuses on ends (e.g., revenue for the Nation, citizen jobs, sovereignty, self-sufficiency and self-determination) rather than means (i.e., western business laws, structures and profit-making strategies). A Nation’s sovereignty as a competitive advantage influences NNSE decisions (Stewart et al. 2014). For example, a Native Nation may acquire a company and expand NNSE into minority-owned contracts or business in Indian Country in order to take advantage of special government programs or special contracting opportunities in order to grow their businesses. While NNSE adheres to business laws and some norms, Native culture, community, ethics, social responsibility and ecology drive at least some decisions.
Native cultural values in NNSE cross our participants’ stories. Some NNSE executives directly attribute decisions to honoring past generations and building an economy for future generations under the seven generations philosophy, a counterbalance to short-term thinking endemic in US business. NNSE attempts to model environmental stewardship, social responsibility and ethical decision making. In certain ways, the stories demonstrate efforts to align NNSE strategies with these Nation’s cultures. A holistic, interconnected and sustainable worldview (see, e.g., Brayboy et al. 2014; Hain-Jamall 2013) is needed now and tomorrow because sustainability is critical for continued human existence (Reidmiller et al. 2018; Spratt & Dunlop 2018; IPCC 2019). LaDuke (1999), a Native activist, advocates for an environmental relational ethic that emanates from long-term interrelationship with Mother Earth.
All participants at least try to respect their Nations’ defining values and ethics, some of which conflict with, or differ from, the dominant culture. Participants’ stories demonstrate that NNSE exists to improve a Nation’s self-determination and its People’s wellbeing. They actively manage toward this. These for-profit businesses, consistent with Native values and ethics, create community capacity, including meeting societal needs and creating jobs to enhance local economies. Profits benefit the community through government, cultural and social services and direct payments. Leaders incorporate social sustainability as a responsibility to each other, to honor ancestors and preserve culture for future generations. They practice environmental sustainability as a responsibility to the Earth. Thus, social responsibility practice is broader, and sustaining their respective Nations and Peoples is the raison d’ȇtre for for-profit NNSE.
This study did not find creative, distinctly Native adaptations to business law, structures and organizations, which forces us to consider if NNSE colonizes thought toward the ‘evil’ opposites of Native ethical values such as the Seven Grandfather Teachings (see, e.g., Verbos & Humphries 2014). In hierarchical structures, NNSE executives may emulate economic models that create executive pay disparities, benefit from naïve citizen boards of directors, or support exploiting workers. For example, one Nation not in our study, the Mississippi Choctaw, enacted a so-called ‘right to work’ law.12 These laws decimate labor unions and worker rights, reduce average worker pay and benefits, and silence worker voice (AFL-CIO 2021). Although the labor-management relationship in U.S. culture is fraught with hostility, emulating corporate domination over workers that does not comport with generosity, respect, humility, care for others, and Native cultural values that could enhance business relationships or generate new organizational forms.
In our study, several NNSE executives expressed concern regarding finding, hiring and retaining Native citizens with specialized skills. Frequently, NNSE managers and skilled labor are non-Native employees. Many Nations have a high unemployment rate, which may be in part due to lower educational attainment (Austin 2013). However, even ‘when Native Americans are similar to whites in terms of factors such as age, sex, education level, marital status, and state of residence, their odds of being employed are 31 percent lower than those of whites’ (Austin 2013: 3).
Western ways of being, laws, structures and exploitative business models are not ideal in this context, so looking forward, Native adaptations may benefit NNSE toward a sustainable future and citizen wellbeing. Also, as Nations gain more autonomy over their decision making, a Nation’s laws could enable new NNSE governance and organizational structures to better align with their core values. TribalCrit tenet 9 asks that Native scholars work for social change. With respect to NNSE, a greater embedding of cultural practices and values could provide tangible ways to operationalize sovereignty and more closely align organizational structures with the Nation’s Native identity. It is worth noting that new and creative Native business adaptations may offer sustainability lessons to US businesses and enrich business education.
Using an exploratory method, this study uses Tribal Critical Race Theory as the lens to develop a new model which describes the unique interface between Native Nations Social Enterprises and western culture. Native Nations Social Enterprises are unique from western institutions in many regards, perhaps most notably in their distinct mission to provide collective social and cultural benefits in addition to economic returns. Our study adds to TribalCrit theory by revealing the ways in which contemporary Native organizations span boundaries with mainstream society in a manner that is both integrative with western culture, yet still protective of Native cultural traditions and beliefs. By using TribalCrit theory, we are able to depict the manner in which Native nations assert cultural autonomy and sovereignty while still adapting to mainstream economic norms. In doing so, we add to TribalCrit and critical race theories by demonstrating how, at the level of Tribal organizations and institutions, Native communities seek balance between the competing forces of assimilation and self-determination.
We model stories about Nation-building through for-profit business. Native legal, organizational and business ways of being are assimilative forces that constrain cultural consistency in Nation building. Our research shows that NNSE inextricably intertwines social and economic realms, whether as an NNSE’s mission, citizen employment, profit distributions to fund government, social programs or per-capita distributions. An overarching social mission is common across the six Nations’ NNSE. While all are for-profit companies, the primary reason for ‘being’ is a Native community orientation. Participants’ stories demonstrate that NNSE exists to improve a Nation’s self-determination and its People’s wellbeing. They actively manage for this. Moreover, these for-profit businesses, consistent with Native values and ethics, create community capacity, including meeting societal needs and creating jobs to enhance local economies. Profits benefit the community through government, cultural and social services and direct payments. Leaders incorporate social sustainability as a human responsibility to each other, to honor ancestors and preserve culture for future generations. They also practice environmental sustainability as a human responsibility to the Earth. Thus, social responsibility practice is broader, and is the raison d’ȇtre for for-profit NNSE, which is not inherently part of western business practices and may, in fact, conflict with underlying theory.
Our research also revealed that US business norms still pose a threat to a Nation’s identity, promoting western organizational structures, individual material gain and other assimilationist tendencies. Thus, a ‘one size fits all’ approach is neither necessary nor effective when it comes to business forms and management systems.
As Nations gain more autonomy over their decision making, a Nation’s laws could enable new NNSE governance and organizational structures to better align with their core values. Therefore, going forward, a Nation’s leaders, its NNSE board and executive managers, may wish to replace or discard culturally harmful or unsustainable business practices adopted through cultural and political assimilation. Perhaps people entrusted with a Nation’s NNSE could use creative adaptation, cultural practices and values to demonstrate tangible ways in which NNSE positively operationalizes sovereignty to enable the Nation’s power, autonomy and self-determination true to Native identity. Leaders may also learn from past failed enterprises to develop and create more effective, culturally appropriate adaptations. Further, Native Nations, NNSE boards and Native Peoples may experiment and innovate new, sustainable Native organizational structures to maintain Native identity, philosophy and values while creating social and business value for its citizens.
Future research is needed to provide new solutions to promote more economic development and autonomy for Native Nations, but also examine new sustainable organizational models among non-Native businesses. Native scholars should also have a voice in the discussion as to provide a non-westernized and more Native perspective in this field of research. Scholars examining non-US Indigenous sovereign nations under a similar critical inquiry may expose potential conflicts within such nations’ economic development. Comparative studies relative to Indigenous and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, with former British colonial history could be particularly interesting and provide further insight. Moreover, research may reveal that new and creative Native business adaptations may offer sustainability lessons to US businesses and enrich business education. With the ever-growing global necessity for more sustainable businesses, a Native perspective may provide a new lens toward creating new business organizations and culturally appropriate business models (Verbos & Humphries 2014).
1As of January 26, 2021, there are 574 ‘federally recognized tribes’ (US Bureau of Indian Affairs, 2021). Other tribes struggle to regain recognition.
2CRT and Critical Legal Studies focus on different racial phenomena and are beyond the scope of this paper. In order to focus attention on the theory at hand, we forego a summary of this long history and recommend Crenshaw (2010) for a historical context.
3We use the terms Native Peoples, Native Nations and citizens as a Native lens on sovereign status and power. ‘America’ is the name given to Turtle Island by European colonizers. Each Native Nation has a name for themselves in their own languages. These are not the same as the names given to ‘tribes’ by the U.S. government, which uses Indian, American Indian or Native American to conflate more than 600 unique Native Peoples. American Indian is most often used in law, so we use it in that context.
10In traditional Native culture, family is not US culture’s nuclear family, rather it is many grandmothers, grandfathers, aunties and cousins. Ceremonies differ, but, generally, funerals are longer and family responsibility is greater than work responsibility.
The authors have no competing interests to declare.
Stephanie Black, PhD is an associate professor at Texas A&M University, San Antonio where she teaches strategic management, international business, and entrepreneurship and conducts research in ethnic entrepreneurship, social networking, and innovation. She has published her work in prestigious journals such as the Journal of Management, Journal of Entrepreneurship, Academy of Business Research Journal, Journal of Management and Education. As a Native American scholar from the Lakota Sioux in South Dakota, she enjoys contributing to scholarly research on Indigenous issues.
Amy Klemm Verbos, JD & PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater. Her research interests include Native American business, organizational forms, and ethics, Indigenous rights in the context of the UN Global Compact, gender equity, the PRME, a legal critique of benefit corporations, and protege empowerment. As an enrolled citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi (based in Dowagiac, Michigan), she endeavors to contribute to Native American business literature from an Indigenous perspective.
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