Click Here to view Op/Ed as published on
SANTA FE, N.M. — If you were to ask 10 different people to name the defining characteristic of the Native American economy, you’d likely to get 10 different answers. Some may cite gaming. Others could note government contracting and procurement. A few may list diverse fields such as energy, telecommunications, health care and construction. And several are likely say there is no economy as there is a lack of economic opportunity in some Native communities.
The truth lies somewhere in between. When the Reservation Economic Summit (RES) convenes at the Pueblo of Pojoaque’s Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino from Nov. 14-17, the diversity of the Native American economy will be on full display.

For the second consecutive year, the premier regional economic development event in Indian Country will be in Santa Fe and bring together tribal leaders, successful and emerging businessmen and women, experts across a variety of subjects, and representatives from corporate America. While at RES, they’ll network, share best practices and experiences, and collaborate with each other. Put simply, RES is where Indian Country comes to do business.

In the early years of our over three-decade run of hosting RES events, our conversations were dominated by government contracting and some gaming. And while those remain important cogs in the Native American economy, the recent diversification of our economy is remarkable.

Gathered next to casino managers and procurement leads are entrepreneurs working in the industries that will define the 21st-century economy. They are forging new enterprises to take advantage of the energy boom occurring throughout the country, in both fossil fuels and renewable power. Tribal leaders are exploring new ways and strategies to meet critical needs in their communities, such as health care and access to high-speed broadband internet and wireless services.

Others are peering beyond the boundaries of their tribal lands and exploring opportunities in e-commerce and online lending. Many are bullish about tribal tourism, especially after President Obama signed the NATIVE Act to boost Native American and Alaska Native tourism initiatives.

Here in New Mexico, two major water and infrastructure projects will create tremendous economic opportunity for Indian Country. The Pojoaque Basin Regional Water System Project and the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply System will provide reliable and safe supplies of drinking water for Apache, Navajo and Pueblo communities. These multimillion-dollar and yearslong projects will offer significant contracting and employment opportunities. RES will host a panel for project managers to discuss what these developments mean for Native-owned businesses.

At RES, we also “walk the walk.” Presenters won’t simply be talking about how they’ve been successful in business – they’ll lay out a blueprint for how others can follow in their well-trod footsteps. Interactive sessions will address business basics such as marketing and social media, financing, accounting, and building rock-solid business plans. RES will even bring in major national and regional financial institutions to potentially fund participants’ business dreams, or give them pointers on how to make their ideas better.

Our reason for facilitating RES is simple: to provide economic opportunity and hope for our people. Despite real and tangible gains over the last several years and the continued diversification of our economies, Native Americans too often lag far behind national averages in health, educational attainment, poverty levels, and other key indicators. At the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, we believe economic opportunity is the best antidote to combat these very real ailments. As we say, “we mean business.”

We can create that economic opportunity by coordinating and working together across all of Indian Country. There’s no better way than to continue our collaboration and put words into action than at the Reservation Economic Summit, right here in New Mexico.

Derrick Watchman, a member of the Navajo Nation, is the chairman of the board of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development. For more information about the Reservation Economic Summit, please visit