TRIBAL ASSETS

The Rebirth of Native America

By Robert H. White

Henry Holt. 291 pp. $24.95

Everything that is good and true and noble about this book is also what is wrong with it. It is part of the paradox -- or at least the conundrum -- of Indian America, as we might say now, meaning all those people who were here first. And more to the point, it is about what we newcomers are supposed to think and do in the face of this peculiar and continuing paradox in our history.

What journalist Robert H. White has done in "Tribal Assets" is a yeomanlike job of hustling around to the realms of four not-very-well-known groups of Indians, a totally unglamorous lot who suffered perhaps worst of the surviving tribes by being dispossessed and largely cast adrift and forgotten. During all of the civil rights upheavals in Mississippi, for example, outsiders heard practically nothing about the Mississippi Choctaws who were just as badly off as the blacks in that state, and that is because most of their neighbors didn't really know they existed. Talk about invisible people.

White arrived on his four scenes after these people, through various means, had begun to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, getting into business, commerce, capitalism. In rising from a crushing poverty, they have achieved an economic self-sufficiency that has surprised their neighbors from the dominant culture. They have launched ventures into the prefabricated housing industry (the Passamaquoddies of Maine), greeting card manufacture (the Mississippi Choctaw), the cotton business (the Ak-Chin in Arizona) and hydroelectric power (the Warm Springs Confederation in Oregon). There is virtually no Indian tribe that is not trying to accomplish much the same thing, and many of them with much less success.

These heartwarming tales of Indian enterprise are terribly important because they help to break down the mind-sets of two kinds of people. The first is the sort of person who simply thinks Indians can't handle the 20th-century world on their own but at the same time resents the fact that the feds take care of them. But such people probably won't pick up this book. The second type, in some ways more insidious than the first, is made up of those who think that Indians shouldn't have to handle the 20th century, and particularly all the nasty, commercial, selfish etc. aspects of it that simply eliminate the beauty of Indian oneness with nature, and all that romantic stuff. These people want poetry, not economic news. An accomplished Indian accountant is simply not Black Elk or Chief Seattle.

It would be a grand thing if such people would read this book, and grand too if some business people would read it (just as they read success stories in Inc. or Fortune) because a lot of those in business think private enterprise on Indian reservations is too risky, if not impossible. Nice if the bureaucrats in the Bureau of Indian Affairs would read it, to get a bead on which of their thousands of regulations about investing in Indian businesses should be erased. And nice too, if a lot of young Indians could get their hands on it, by way of example and inspiration.

The trouble is that it doesn't really appear to have been written and published for any of the above. There isn't enough case history detail to make it a useful textbook for would-be Indian entrepreneurs or outside investors. As heartwarming stories, the book sings only when White quotes the Indians (who tend to have a down-to-earth sense of humor about all this, as well as a rare bluntness). White himself tends to be portentous in his telling and is regrettably a master of the non-informative detail, for example, describing the Passamaquoddy tribal headquarters as a "graceful pile of blond shingles decorated with ceramic motifs derived from traditional Native American designs." Or letting us know, once he's inside, that the secretary's desk is to the left of the door.

Being there, in the journalistic tradition employed here, somehow manages to add up to not being anywhere in particular.

It is a strength of the book that one rarely gets a feeling of "cultural differentness" about the people in these stories. Except for the amazing economic and political odds and social problems they overcame (usually presented in brief, almost hurried, historical sketches and in statistics), they seem just like everyday, ordinary people. And it is high time that Indians were seen as human beings. At the same time, paradoxically, tribal people often do have a different outlook on much of life, and some of these diverse viewpoints are precious.

The author makes a few passes at this -- how the tribes intend to use an entrepreneurially achieved level of self-sufficiency to strengthen their own evolving cultures; what, if any, particular wellsprings of tribal strength they were able to call on. But in general the context, the setting for these four jewels, is oddly abstract and thin. And while it is never said outright, one might be left with the impression that the answer to all the Indians' problems is some good old capitalism -- but that doesn't seem to be the sole solution to anybody's problems these days.

But all this is a bit churlish on my part. The author set out merely to tell four success stories about Indian business. And that's what he did. They do not spell "The Rebirth of Native America," as the subtitle proclaims with inadvertent condescension, but they are an important aspect of a larger, extremely complicated and, yes, heartwarming revival that is underway in our midst. As such, "Tribal Assets" should be welcomed.

The reviewer, coauthor of "Hopi," is working on a book about the Navajo.