Native American Backs Reservation Businesses

Article excerpt

Rebecca Adamson freely admits she is a free-market capitalist that everyone hates.

"I upset both Rush Limbaugh and the most bleeding-heart liberals. Because I believe that poor people have to be responsible for dealing with their actions and they must become active in dealing with their (economic) fate," Adamson said.

But unlike most capitalists, Adamson believes profit is not the only factor in economic development. There must be primary human and cultural elements as well. Adamson, a Cherokee, is founder and director of First Nations Development Institute in Fredericksburg, Va. Her group takes only corporate and private money, no federal funds. The institute was founded in 1995. "We have given out $2.8 million and by the end of March we will have given $3 million," Adamson said. Adamson's foundation funds start-up businesses on rural Indian reservations, where half of America's 2 million Native Americans live. The need is clear. "Today, the unemployment rate for Native Americans is 55 percent. Many of the reservations or homelands have 85 to 90 percent unemployment," Adamson said last week in a talk to the students and faculty at Washington University's School of Social Work. "Alcoholism is 500 times the national norm and we are now entering the second generation of fetal alcohol syndrome babies," Adamson said. "Of the entire adult Indian population, only 12 percent earns more than $7,000 a year." Adamson's vision of capitalist development is more than the traditional Adam Smith supply-and-demand capitalist structure, where bottom-line profits are the only measure of success. "This must be cultural community development," said Adamson, "It involves how to strengthen the cultural community fabric; how to protect the family and the extended family, and still provide a dignified livelihood within the community." The primary issue is to maintain tribal values and traditions while having a viable economy on the reservations, Adamson said. Adamson's foundation makes both grants and loans. But she doesn't just hand out money. "We make very hard-headed financial decisions. We are looking at the social aspects of creating entrepreneurship by poor people. . . . But we also do straightforward cash flow assessments. The business has to be `doable'." For grants, First Nation will go from $1,000 to up to $150,000, with the average being about $40,000, said Adamson. …