Some Native American tribes have done very well for themselves in the casino business. But for tribes whose lands are far off the beaten track, that business won't work. Finding new economic opportunities can be difficult.
Many are being encouraged to look for jobs in the energy sector or develop e-commerce ventures, but some are being told they could make millions of dollars using wide open spaces on reservation land growing a very lucrative crop: marijuana.
This month in Las Vegas, the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development held a reservation economic summit. In a standing-room-only breakout conference at Mandalay Bay, tribal leaders listened to the pitfalls and opportunities of growing cannabis
"We've been approached by several companies wanting us," said Priscilla Blackhawk Rentz, a councilwoman for the Mountain Ute tribe in Colorado, a state where marijuana is legal. She was at the conference to get more information about growing and selling pot in the Colorado market. "They're telling us that we could possibly create $3 million a year for our tribe alone."
There are 566 recognized tribes in the United States, and there are almost as many opinions about the marijuana business. "The Navajo will never do it, they're too conservative," one man told me.
Alcohol and drugs are already problems on many reservations. "Is marijuana going to add to those realities?" asked Mountain Ute councilwoman Deanne House.
Some tribes within Washington state, where marijuana is also legal for medical and recreational purposes, have banned pot on the reservation, "and others are looking at going into the business," said Charles Galbraith, a former federal prosecutor and member of the Navajo Nation who now consults with Washington tribes.
The possibility of growing marijuana popped up in December, when the Justice Department surprised tribal leaders with a memorandum suggesting that the agency may consider looking the other way if tribes got into the cannabis business, in much the same way it's backed off enforcement in states that have legalized pot, as long as certain rules are followed.
The feds recommended that tribal leaders meet with their local U.S. Attorney "on a government-to-government basis," adding that "each United States Attorney must assess all of the threats present in his or her district, including those in Indian Country, and focus enforcement efforts based on that district specific assessment."