Economic development tourism, tribal industries, and gaming.
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Economic development tourism, tribal industries, and gaming.
Economic underdevelopment has been an ongoing problem for many tribes since the beginning of the reservation eras in the United States and Canada. Reservations are typically located in economically marginal rural areas—that is, areas considered to be too dry, too wet, too steep, too remote, or possessing some other hindrance to productivity, even at the time of their creation. Subsequent cessions and the allotment process decreased the reservation land base and increased the economic hurdles faced by indigenous peoples. Studies of reservation income help to place the situation in perspective: in the early 21st century, if rural Native America had constituted a country, it would have been classified on the basis of median annual per capita income as a “developing nation” by the World Bank.

Economic development is the process through which a given economy, whether national, regional, or local, becomes more complex and grows in terms of the income or wealth generated per person. This process is typically accomplished by finding new forms of labour and often results in the creation of new kinds of products.


One example of economic development has been the transition from hunting and gathering to a full reliance on agriculture; in this example, the new form of labour comprised the system of sowing and harvesting useful plants, while the new products comprised domesticates such as corn (maize) and cotton. During the 19th century, much of the economic growth of Northern America arose from a shift in which extractive economies, such as farming and mining, were replaced by those that transformed raw materials into consumer goods, as with food processing and manufacturing. In the 20th century a broadly analogous shift from a manufacturing economy to one focused on service industries (e.g., clerical work, entertainment, health care, and information technology) took place.


Airboat tours at the reconstructed Seminole encampment at the Billie Swamp Safari, an eco-heritage park the tribe developed on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation in the Florida Everglades.


Robert Kippenberger, Seminole Tribe of Florida, Billie Swamp Safari, Big Cypress Reservation, Everglades, Florida


Although underdevelopment is common in rural Northern America, comparisons of the economic status of rural Indians with that of other rural groups indicate that factors in addition to location are involved. For instance, in 2002 a national study by the South Carolina Rural Health Research Center found that about 35 percent of the rural Native American population in the United States lived below the poverty line; although this was about the same proportion as seen among rural African Americans, less than 15 percent of rural Euro-Americans had such low income levels. Perhaps more telling, rural counties with predominantly Native American populations had less than one-fourth of the bank deposits (i.e., savings) of the average rural county—a much greater disparity in wealth than existed for any other rural group. (Predominantly Hispanic counties, the next lowest in the rankings, had more than twice the deposits of predominantly Native American counties.)v

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