The NCSL Blog


By Mark Wolf

The gig economy, in which short-term workers perform contracted tasks organized through an online platform, can be a key instrument in developing self-determination and tribal economies.

Maranda Compton, photo for NCSL by Berkeley TeateThat's the message Maranda S. Compton delivered as the keynote speaker of Wednesday's opening session of the National Tribal Energy Summit sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Indian Energy, in coordination with NCSL.

Tribes can use the technology inherent in driving the gig economy, which is projected to involve half the U.S. workforce by 2021, to marshall an array of tribal resources that can feed back into their economies, said Compton, a Lenape and a partner in the Van Ness Feldman law firm who focuses her practice on all aspects of Native American law and policy. 

The ability to work from anywhere that has internet access can allow tribes to develop their own infrastructures.

"I'm not talking about extractive resources, I'm talking about extractive economy," said Compton, noting that the broad resources and incredible abilities of Indian communities are too often shipped out. "They end up in cities, all our raw materials, whether it’s persons, human resources, is shifted out of our economy and used up at a different endpoint. The gig economy and technology has the ability to have a regenerative Indian economy.

"Start with tribal energy development. What if that energy, instead of being refined and sent elsewhere, is refined and used on tribal microgrids? What if those microgrids power a tribal technology center? That tech center has a coding school, has a tribal incubator with opportunities to develop your portfolio of skills. … That provides jobs on the gig economy and those jobs provide a paycheck that you can spend on your reservation. Soon enough you have secondary and tertiary economies developing on your reservation," she said.

"By keeping those resources in our communities, we are building economies that can sustain us over the next however many years. That’s self-determination."

Noting that when a tribal member is working on a Google document, "your information is held in a cloud, in a data center. It's a server on a rack in a building somewhere. That server could be in your community, powered by your energy," she said. "All you need is a building block and a brain. Once you have that microgrid, you can build a coding school, you can start businesses.

"The gig economy can create reservation infrastructures with high off-reservation value. No longer do we have to go somewhere else or require someone else to come to us. The gig economy, technology, provides that bridge."

Coding is the language of the future, she said, "but it's a language that can speak anything. You can build websites for tribal businesses, use coding and technology to monitor your wild rice bed. You can create a language app so that your children can learn your language.

"We can decide what's of value."

She urged tribes to think of the big picture in terms of self-determination: "What your power is, is exactly what our ancestors fought for."

Mark Wolf is editor of the NCSL Blog.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.