By Jennifer Lawson

Per capita payments, or ‘per caps’, as they are known in Indian Country, function as a kind of basic income for tribal nations that have them. In this piece, I want to examine the distinct difference between the thinking about such a basic income in Indian Country and the United States in general.

The other day, I was talking to a small group of non-native Americans about basic income. One of them said to me, “Basic income seems like something like that would take a long time to gain ground.”

In the United States in general, the thinking about basic income is not as far along as it is in Indian Country, where per caps have been a staple for many tribes for several years.

One of the first questions, for tribes that gained discretionary income in the last decade, has been, “What do we do with this money?”

Many tribal nations have tribally owned businesses and, unlike the general thinking in the United States, no one worries that this may be a form of communism or socialism. It is simply, for many tribal nations, in keeping with their tribal values to have a collectively owned business.

The revenue from such businesses, as well as the revenue from natural resources and other ways tribes gain money, provide the discretionary income that tribal nations work with.

The answer to the question, “What do we do with this money?” is answered differently by different tribal nations. Some provide services to their citizens, such as childcare, early childhood education, hospitals, and so forth. Others provide per caps to their members.

I do not want anyone to come away thinking that tribal nations are flushed with cash or that Native people are, in general, rich from per caps. Rather, I want to look at the differences between the tribal way of thinking and the United States’ way of thinking

From the tribal point of view, when you have a collectively owned business, it makes sense that one option would be to divide the revenue up and disperse it among citizens of the tribe. In general, what to do with the money is voted upon and the decision about what to do with the money is decided that way.

For non-native people, we do not have collectively owned businesses to decide how to divide the revenue. A large portion of people in the United States would rebuke such a business as socialism or communism.

However, we do have other ways of gaining access to a basic income without having collectively owned businesses. Some have suggested taxing pollution, for example.

For tribal nations, some of the arguments that are familiar to people in basic income have been espoused, both for and against. One worry, for example, is that people will not attend college because the thinking What’s the use? is in effect. That is, if you don’t need to attend college for future employment, why go? This thinking saddens many tribal people, who have a pre-colonial history of being interested in education, contrary to stereotypes.

But the biggest issue for tribes, which has become a real problem, is that of disenrollment. Disenrollment is, in effect, making people ineligible to be tribal citizens. While many tribal nations are growing as of late, some tribal nations with per caps have closed and/or tightened up their citizenship requirements to make per caps go further, and to allow each individual to have as much money from per caps as possible. If a tribal nation is doing pretty well economically, it does even better when the tribe is small.

With the large population of the United States, as well as our open citizenship requirements, where people may become citizens after completing various acts and learning about our government and founding documents, what we can afford to give our citizens depends on how we collect that money.

Because the issue of having collectively owned businesses seems to be less compatible with the values of the United States than of tribal nations, we of the United States have to be creative in how we decide to fund a basic income.
No matter the problems that tribal nations have experienced due to per caps, what is clear is that tribes that have the ability, and vote accordingly, can provide a basic income for their citizens. This should make us wonder why the United States, which has more wealth, opportunity, and so forth, cannot.

Looking over the state of per caps in Indian Country has made me, at least, realize that it can be done, and that we should do it. After all, if we had a basic income, I might be able to be in Standing Rock right now, standing with my Native brothers and sisters against the Dakota Access Pipeline—or engaging in other activist or cultural activities.
There is much that Indian Country can teach us. The issue of basic income is one we should look into further.

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