My Latest Challenge: Working in Native Country

Anyone who has spent ten minutes with me in the past few months knows that I’ve been consumed by my latest client: a Native American tribe in North Carolina. Like roughly 250 other federally recognized tribes in the US, they have a casino on their land, and the revenues from the casino serve both as income for the tribe and per capita payments for enrolled tribe members. Minors who are enrolled have their “per cap” money held in trust until they turn 18– at which point, because of the miracle of compounding interest, they receive a “big money” payout. This year, it’s about $170,000.

The tribe’s treasurer and finance committee approached me to do some research on members’ opinions about this payout. Is the lump sum system working? Is there a better way to do it (staggered payments, for instance)? What do tribe members think? It’s an issue which is ripe for public opinion research.

The first hurdle was the strong feeling from tribal leadership that an “outsider” (that’s me) would not be well-positioned to get any information from people. So I proposed that they would hire locals: a focus group moderator for the qualitative portion and door-to-door interviewers for the quantitative portion, and I would train all these folks, write the survey, and analyze the findings. Working on this is hugely challenging: there are tons of moving parts, a bureaucracy I can’t hope to learn how to navigate, and the feeling that I am on another planet, even though it’s only about 6 hours from where I grew up. I am incredibly lucky to have an amazing team, including my moderator, a tribal member who grew up and is still active in the community and who patiently answers my millions of questions, including:

  • What is fry bread? (See description here…it’s delicious.)
  • Do tribe members pay state income tax? (No)
  • Why don’t you call this area a reservation? (This was an original tribal land. Reservation refers to the land out west that was “reserved” for native people who were forcibly removed from their land.)
  • Is the Native history that I learned in school accurate? (Absolutely not.)

Yesterday I got back from my third trip to North Carolina in as many months. The region where the tribe is headquartered is about 45 minutes from the Georgia border. It’s an area that makes my ears pop, with mountain views that take my breath away. Every time I go, I realize how little I know about Native life and Native history. And I realize how lucky I am to have a project like this where I’m helping the tribe with something they need, learning a ton, and pushing my own research skills to the limit.

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Founder of Southpaw Insights