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110 years later, act may finally help tribal businesses

It can take the federal government a long time to do something. A really, really long time.

After 110 years, the Indian Health Service published their version of the regulations to implement the Buy Indian Act. The Buy Indian Act, passed in 1910, as an Act of Congress is the law that has the potential to improve Indian Country and Oklahoma's economic landscape significantly. Like all laws, the process requires the federal agency to develop regulations on how the law will be implemented.

Why did it take over a century to implement this law? No reason for the 110-year delay has been given; apparently, it was just one of those things that happened. And why should Oklahoma be interested? Let me tell the story.

The 1887 General Allotment Act set the framework for removing reservation land from communal ownership to individual members. The "surplus" land was then opened to general homesteading by non-American Indians.

With the passage of the General Allotment Act, the government had encouraged Native Americans to become more like mainstream America. Hoping to turn Indians into farmers, the federal government gave out tribal lands to Indian individuals in 160-acre parcels.

Later in 1910, the Federal government passed the Buy Indian Act, designed to turn the Indians into merchants. The Buy Indian Act of 1910 authorizes the “Secretary of the Interior to employ Indian labor and purchase Indian-owned firms' products without using the normal competitive process.”

Perhaps the only good law to come out of that era.

This was not a happy period for the American Indians. Oklahoma had obtained statehood, and the American Indian problem was relevant.

But there was a more significant problem. What is an American Indian? American Indians were not citizens. Indians were designated "wards" of the government. The federal government used a system of determining who is an Indian by their degree of American Indian blood. My mother was born in 1923. She was, therefore, not a citizen.

She was under the protection of the Federal government, a Ward. She held a "blood quorum of one-half Indian."

Finally, on June 2, 1924, Congress granted citizenship to all Native Americans born in the U.S. One significant fact helped advance the Indian Citizenship Act.

This law allowed Indians to be drafted by the Federal government. But it did not get rid of the blood quorum system. The Federal government still uses the same method of blood quorum for dogs and horses and American Indians.

The Buy Indian Act passed into law in 1910 was another attempt by Congress to remake the Indians into merchants. The Buy Indian Act directed the federal agencies to purchase from Indian owned businesses, services, and products produced by Indians. The law said it was at the "discretion" of the Secretary of Interior to determine when the Buy Indian Act applied.

It took the Interior Department more than 100 years and 28 secretaries to decide how to define "discretion" and finish building the rules and regulations to implement the legislation. The final ruling on the law was published and put into place in July 2013. But only for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Since that date, American Indian-owned businesses have grown; have endured, have responded, and have met the many challenges of the Buy Indian Act. They did this by partnering with non-Indian companies and buying businesses that understood the Federal procurement process. They have recruited strong leadership.

Not all attempts have been successful. Selling to the Federal government is a difficult task with many pitfalls. Tribes and individual Indian-owned enterprises have had to learn from the bottom up. After all, the Federal government handed all their money and property for years. American Indians were never on the other side of the counter. American Indians were the consumers, not the merchants.

The federal government needs these businesses to grow strong and support their many needs of these tribal communities. The tribal communities in Oklahoma have shown they take the welfare of their tribal citizens as a priority. These American Indian businesses have made a significant contribution with scholarships and more services to their members.

In the past 100 plus years, our tribes and individual American Indian-owned business have built multiple strong companies that employ many American Indians and many more non-American Indians. We expect this will help increase economic activity in and around tribal communities and provide more significant employment opportunities for all Oklahomans.

The two departments, Interior and Health and Human Services, spend billions of dollars a year on purchases. Finalizing these regulations can open the doors to new partnerships and companies to grow in Oklahoma. The Buy Indian Act, fully implemented with fair regulations, will be another step in the economic viability and diversification of our Native American businesses.

Now, in 2021, the Indian Health Service has finally published regulations for the implementation the Buy Indian Act. They have agreed to republish these regulations to allow for input from the tribes, and individual Indian owned businesses to comment on “soon.”

The question for the Indian Health Service is, “How soon is soon?”

Bills is President at Strategic Native American Partnerships, LLC in Oklahoma City.