Ds Scholarship

Beyond Casinos: Growth Opportunities for Business on Tribal Lands

There is no shortage of scholarships or white papers on the intricacies of doing business in the Indian province, but until recently, there have been a few widely known examples that clearly demonstrate the benefits of doing business in tribal lands.

This fall, Tesla opened its newest showroom and repair center on the trust grounds in Nambé Pueblo, a federally recognized tribe north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The reason for the unlikely location of the Tesla showroom, in the shadow of a tribal casino near the smoke, a shopping and travel center was an old state law that prohibited the electric car maker’s business model of direct-to-consumer sales by requiring all car sales to pass through a dealership.

Tribes are sovereign governments that predated the United States and retained sovereignty as the United States and 50 states grew around it, and state law does not apply largely to tribal lands. This judicial discrimination manifested itself in much of the businesses usually associated with tribes, such as casinos, cigarettes, fireworks, and now revolutionary, high-end electric cars. New Mexico law requiring all car sales to be through dealerships simply doesn’t apply to tribal lands, including Tesla’s beautiful new showroom in Nambé Pueblo.

Technology, brand identity, and a radical shift to remote work have rendered many of the labor standards established by laws, such as requirements for selling cars, largely obsolete. However, many of these laws are still on the books as impediments to growth and competition.

Indian Country offers a valuable opportunity not only to effectively manage legacy regulatory burdens but also offers significant benefits beyond simple jurisdictional advantages.

Trust vs. Land Fee and Reservation Authority

The greatest advantage of partnering with tribes lies in the unique status of their lands, which can be held in multiple ways, making a clear understanding of the status of the land central to development opportunities.

In contrast to fee land, which is considered alienable and subject to federal, state and local laws, Indian trust land is land held by the United States for the benefit of an Indian tribe and is thus under the jurisdiction of the Indian tribe.

Since tribes are not subject to state land regulations, Nambé Tesla was simply able to bypass New Mexico’s old auto sales law and strategically place its business on tribal trust lands.

Focus on diversity and inclusion

Modern companies are embracing diversity and inclusion as the composition of the workforce continues to change. The clear advantage of setting up a shop on an Indian reservation is the diversity of the local workforce.

The less obvious advantage is that tribes invest deeply in the employment of their citizens and are often willing to invest in workforce development programs, or access to federal opportunities, that can build a valuable workforce pipeline.

tax collection

Another benefit of tribal jurisdiction over Indian trust territory is the ability to negotiate taxes directly with the government exercising that jurisdiction. Neighboring countries often have flat taxes that cannot be changed, but tribal taxes are less general, less comprehensive, and can often be negotiated to the benefit of both parties.

Federal investments in rural broadband

The federal government has recently invested heavily in rural broadband, especially as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to affect the country. Many tribal governments have taken advantage of these opportunities to greatly expand rural broadband in their reserves and modernize old and outdated equipment. As tribes continue to increase their modern contact, companies will have greater opportunities to expand their business premises in rural tribal communities.

While these are certainly important advantages for business opportunities, relationships are still important above all else. Regardless of the financial incentives, Partnership for India’s Growth requires an understanding that all tribes have different systems, cultures and histories that must be taken into account to build value that can extend beyond the balance sheet.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Office of National Affairs or its owners.

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Author information

Charles W. Galbraith He is the co-chair of Jenner & Block’s Native American law practice and a partner in the governmental dispute and litigation practice of public policy and the practice of government relations. A native of the Navajo Nation, he has over 15 years of experience helping tribes navigate their unique legal landscape and political relationships in the United States.

Crystalline Kinsel She is a fellow whose practice focuses on complex litigation and Native American affairs. She is a citizen of the Navajo Nation and her experience ranges from representing the sovereign interests of tribal governments to defending multinational technology companies and federal agencies against civil action in federal, state, and tribal courts.


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