Corporations and Native Americans in Rural America:  Who Wins?


                                                                                DRAFT 11/6/98




                                                                                Sandra Faiman-Silva, Ph. D.

                                                                                Professor of Anthropology

                                                                   Sociology and Anthropology Department

                                                                                 Bridgewater State College

                                                                                   Bridgewater, MA 02325

                                                                                            (508) 531-2369


      Rural United States communities are like their counterparts around the globe: reservoirs of opportunity for entrepreneurial development.  The U.S. South is particularly appealing with its cheap, exploitable--often ethnic minority--populations, and its historic resistance to unionization movements (see Colclough 1988:75-76; Flora et al. 1992:37-38, 136-37).  The rural southeastern Oklahoma Choctaw Nation is just such a strategic hinterland region for two multinational industries: Weyerhaeuser Timber Company and Tyson Foods, Inc., who each entered the region seeking cheap labor, readily-available raw materials, and favorable business opportunities. 

                This ten and one-half county region was formerly home to the Choctaw Tribe, who were relocated from their ancient Mississippi homeland to Indian Territory in the 1830 Trail of Tears.  Choctaws settled on a 6.8 million acre estate which they called the Choctaw Nation, an environmentally diverse region bordered by the Arkansas River to the north and Red River to the south.  The tribal estate included rich bottomland where some Choctaws developed large homesteads and ranching operations, some using slaves who accompanied Choctaw settlers on their westward trek.  Other Choctaws settled in the rural hilly Kiamichi Mountains, where they established small subsistence farms, replicating their traditional lifestyles brought from Mississippi.  In addition to growing corn, beans, sweet potatoes, cotton and squash, rural Choctaws hunted, fished, raised cattle, and foraged in the abundant hardwood and pine Kiamichi forests. 

                The new Choctaw homeland by the late 19th Century, was again being overrun by whites, who entered Indian Territory to trade, extract natural resources--mainly coal, stone, and timber--and not infrequently to conduct illegal activities. By 1890 the approximately 10,000 Choctaws were far outnumbered, with more than 28,000 whites and 4,400 blacks living in the Choctaw Nation.  Choctaws experienced the devastating effects of tribal allotment in the early twentieth century, with passage of the Dawes Severalty or General Allotment Act in 1887.  They were soon transformed from a semi-sovereign tribal nation into a rural ethnic minority, depleted of their land and tribal sovereignty (See Faiman-Silva 1997).

                Today Southeastern Oklahoma's rural main streets in Idabel, Talihina, and Wright City, bear the face of rural poverty: dusty streets and empty storefronts.  A century ago the Choctaws numbered eighty percent of the region's population, whereas today they are fewer than fifteen percent, with Euro-Americans about eighty percent and African Americans about five percent regionally (U.S. Census Bureau 1990).

                                                                                Economics of Rural Decline

                Southeast Oklahoma between 1925 and 1970 experienced trends typical of rural America generally: population declines, farm consolidation, and increased welfare and public sector dependence (See Dillman and Hobbs 1982:62-63; Snipp and Summers 1991:82-83; Cornell 1988: 60-62; Flora and Christenson, eds. 1991).  The number of farms in Southeast Oklahoma's McCurtain County declined by more than fifty percent and in Pushmataha County by nearly sixty percent between 1929 and 1959 (BIA 1973:13).  Also, like the rest of rural America, the region experienced a noticeable population decline between 1930 and 1960, felt by all sectors, including Choctaws whose population fell by nearly forty percent (Dillman and Hobbs 1982:62-63; BIA 1973:13). 

                Depopulation was prompted by a combination of push and pull factors, including declining agricultural employment opportunitiets, coupled with federally sponsored Indian relocation programs during the 1950s. Since 1960 the trend began to reverse, as many Chocatws returned to take advantage of U.S. Housing and Urban Development-sponsored "mutual help housing" programs, instituted in 1969, which provided low cost housing to eligible Native American families.  Between 1960 and 1980 Southeast Oklahoma's Choctaw population doubled, to about sixteen thousand, about ten percent of the region's population (Faiman-Silva 1997:107). 

                Southeast Oklahoma's economy since the Depression has been typical of hinterland economies globally and the rural U.S.  generally: part-time, intermittent employment opportunities, a preponderance of unskilled, low-paid jobs, and ever-increasing state subsidies through public-sector employment with notable increases in service and government jobs (See Coppedge and Davis 1977; Jorgensen 1978; Hall 1995).  Overall employment in McCurtain and Pushmataha Counties declined by nearly fifty percent from 1940 to 1960, mainly due to dramatic declines in agricultural and forestry jobs sectors.  During the same period government jobs--a sector that employed far few workers than did agriculture--increased by fifty percent (Peach and Poole n.d.; Faiman-Silva 1997:110-111). 

                Facing more constrained job opportunities, many Choctaws worked for timber companies and in other industries, providing cheap, unskilled and semi-skilled labor, often part-time.  Some Choctaw families migrated to Texas to pick cotton during the depression and World War II; while others did odd jobs for white families or cut and stripped timber posts in the local timber industry.  Families supplemented meager cash earnings with gardening, foraging, and the raising of chickens and hogs.  Choctaws also weathered hard times by selling allotted land, which by 1960 had been reduced to a mere 144,000 acres.  By the early 1980s most timber region Choctaw families owned fewer than five acres, all that remained of early twentieth century allotments (see Faiman-Silva 1997:109ff; Debo 1951:4-5; author's interviews 1980-82). 

                Southeast Oklahoma's poverty and unemployment woes persisted in the 1980s and 1990s with the highest unemployment rates state-wide in 1981, about ten percent, while the state averaged 4.8 percent unemployed.  Local minority unemployment in 1981 was the highest in Oklahoma, 18.6 percent (Oklahoma IMPACT 1981:31).  In 1987 Choctaw timber region unemployment was an alarming 37 percent (Bishinik [Durant, OK] 5/87:2).  In 1990 Native Americans in both McCurtain and Pushmataha Counties continued to show high unemployment rates, with McCurtain County unemployment 13.3 percent and Pushmataha County, 14 percent.  White unemployment was 10.5 and 11 percent respectively in those counties (U.S. Census Bureau 1990; Faiman-Silva 1997:110-111).  

                Choctaws and their Euro- and African-American neighbors, many lacking both structures and opportunities for economic self-sufficiency, were exploited in the region’s "secondary labor market" as cheap labor for an increasingly hegemonic U.S. economy (See Hall 1987:9, 11-13; 1988; Castile 1993:273; Flora 1992:42-43), dominated locally by two multinational giants: Weyerhaeuser Timber Company and Tyson Foods. Choctaws and other minority and unskilled local workers provided substantial value, both in the actual wage work they performed and as semiproletarians (see Giminez 1990), whose mixed-subsistence production strategy used unpaid household labor to perform essential household maintenance tasks, thereby subsidizing inadequate wages.  A study of fifty rural Choctaw households conducted by the author in the early 1980s found that nearly 85 percent of Choctaw householders sampled worked only part-time, mainly in chicken processing and timber work, earning wages that could not sustain their families (See Faiman-Silva 1997:160). 

                Rural timber region Choctaws, as they did historically, depended on a “mixed subsistence” survival strategy, combining wage labor with hunting, foraging, gardening, craft and commodity production, resource-sharing, and other extra-wage laboring activities, to meet their livelihood needs.  More than fifty percent of households surveyed in the early 1980s participated in some household non-wage subsistence activities, including cutting timber for home heating, fishing, hunting, foraging, quilt-making, and the raising of chickens and hogs (Faiman-Silva 1997:151).  Choctaws also relied on public sector and tribal benefits, particulary food stamps, social security payments, AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), and tribal assistance programs.  Another common subsistence stratetgy was to share housing space.  Younger nuclear families frequently moved in with parents for extended stays, while working as seasonal tree-planters or in the chicken processing industry, relying on parents for child care and other household resources. 

                Increasingly Choctaws and their rural neighbors turned to public welfare to subsidize inadquate wages.  Between 1950 and 1963 public assistance payments in McCurtain County rose by sixty percent and in Pushmataha County by one-third (Peach and Poole n.d. chart 16).  In 1980 nearly half of Pushmataha's population, 45.4 percent lived below federally-established poverty levels, and in McCurtain County the rate was 37.1 percent, while the overall state average was 18.8 percent (Oklahoma IMPACT 1981; Faiman-Silva 1997:112).  

                                                                                                        Corporate Development; Hinterland Underdevelopment     

                As in peripheral or hinterland economies globally, corporations like Weyerhaeuser and Tyson Foods, among the top Fortune 500 U.S. companies, find Southeast Oklahoma highly attractive both for its cheap labor and its abundant natural resources.  Although the region does benefit materially from the multinational corporate presence in jobs, wages, tax revenues, and other corporate "percs," symptoms of economic malaise caused by unemployment, underemployment, and an inadequate tax base--common byproducts of global hinterland development--are evident in poorly-maintained housing, boarded-up urban buildings, and other signs of infrastructural decay.  Corporations use shrewd business practices to maximize profits and minimize costs locally, and it is frequently local workers and the communities where they live that bear the hidden costs of entrepreneurial success.  As Roberts (1989:671) noted, "Corporations operating in a world strategy have no strong commitment to place, relocating different divisions according to the most cost effective strategy--where certain types of labor are cheaper, are more available, or where favorable tax or other concessions are obtained." 

                Corporate profit-maximizing strategies include vertical and horizontal integration; product diversification; sometimes ruthless management and labor practices; exploitation of cheap, relatively abundant labor; and various forms of corporate "welfare."  These strategies constitute the core of corporate entrepreneurial practices, strategies which both Weyerhaeuser and Tyson Foods employ locally and regionally. 

                For example, Weyerhaeuser since it entered Southeast Oklahoma in 1969 has increased corporate efficiency and profit-making through several forms of what Flora, (1992:37-38) call "corporate restructuring."  First, Weyerhaeuser in 1969 bought the land holdings of a smaller regionally-based company, Dierks Forests, Inc., in what was the largest land purchase in the history of the U.S. timber industry.  This purchase 1.5 million acres eliminated competition and monopolizing the regional asset base. 

                Secondly, the company introduced highly capital-intensive technological innovations to streamline production and reduce labor costs. Weyerhaeuser in 1972 opened a pulp and paper mill in Valliant, Oklahoma, which coverts woodchips into paper and paperboard products.  This mill requires the labor of only six men who operate the entire mill's sophisticated assembly line from a single control panel (Pulp and Paper 1972:43).  Also, the corporation has diversified its production regionally and nationally into other entrepreneurial areas, maximizing product and by-product use.  Among its diversified activities include product research and development, acquaculture, home financing, and real estate development enterprises (See Faiman-Silva 1997).           Third, Weyerhaeuser has increasingly relied on cheaper production strategies, such as labor sub-contracting, whereby essential timber cutting, maintenance and harvesting tasks are performed by sub-contracted crews.  Labor sub-contracting, increasingly prevalent in the highly competitive industrial arena of the 1990s, reduces corporate labor force maintenance costs and turns over to the workers themselves many costs to maintain and reproduce the local labor force (See Roberts 1989:678ff; Flora 1992:42-43). 

                Weyerhaeuser's sub-contracting of timber cutting, harvesting, and tree maintenance tasks, the heart of its local industrial enterprise, epitomizes how the industry exploits and marginalizes laborers to achieve maximum economic advantage and accrue profits while paying little attention to the human costs to workers.  This corporate profitmaking strategy leaves to the public sector welfare state and workers themselves the task of subsidizing inadequate salaries and benefits.  This hidden form of "corporate welfare" is not unique to the Choctaw Nation, but is replicated throughout rural U.S. communities, where underemployed inadequately paid workers turn to public assistance programs to subsidize inferior wages.  

                Labor subcontracting has become big business in Southeast Oklahoma. Currently only about twelve percent of timber brought to Weyerhaeuser's Wright City plant is carried by company trucks; the rest by contractors.  An estimated two hundred men work for independent tree cutting crews, one hundred in chipping operations, and about forty to sixty in seasonal tree planting.  Weyerhaeuser has also contracted road and mill maintenance jobs as well, further eroding its unionized work force (author's interviews, Woodworkers W15 Local President, 1/25/90, 6/8/93).  Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Weyerhaeuser has increased its use of contracted labor to harvest timber, plant and maintain stands, while slashing its unionized workforce dramatically, a strategy designed to reduce corporate costs and increase its competitive edge. 

                Local Choctaws work as part‑time timber cutters, loggers, tree planters and in tree maintenance crews, hired by labor contractors to perform essential timber-related tasks.  The head contractor, or crew boss, obtains work contracts directly from Weyerhaeuser through competitive bidding and then hires his own crew for a particular job. Working as a contractor, crew member, or as an independent logger is a highly competitive, cyclical business dependent on Weyerhaeuser's demand for timber.  The head contractor typically supplies all heavy equipment, while timber cutters supply their own chainsaws. Contractors generally provide only legally‑mandated worker benefits, such as workmens' compensation, and workers often do not receive family health insurance benefits nor are they paid for layoffs, holidays or sick days.  Non-unionized, sub-contracted workers generally receive lower wages and more unstable hours of employment.

                Tree planting and tree maintenance, including thinning and insect control, are also performed by part‑time crews hired through private contractors.  Contractors hiring tree planting crews afford their workers even less job security and lower pay than do logging contractors, since the tree planting season is only about four and one‑half months long, from January through mid‑May.  Workers reported that they planted from 1,000 to 1,500 trees per day, with women planting fewer than men and novice workers planting more slowly than experienced workers.  Tree planting is physically rigorous, entailing trekking through recently clearcut acreage rough with deep grooves and stumpage where seedlings must be set.  Approximately half the tree planters are females and older workers who take advantage of the seasonally available work.  Workers are told that if trees are planted too far apart or if the stand does not take, they must return to the site to replant, the cost of which is taken out of their wages (author's interviews, 1981-1982, 1993; reported in Faiman-Silva 1997). 

                Weyerhaeuser's tree harvesting practices have made unionized timbermen a truly dying breed in Southeastern Oklahoma.  A single Weyerhaeuser logging crew of twelve men, the last remnants of what in 1978 was a company logging force of 278, has been threatened with elimination if it cannot remain competitive with contracted loggers.  This followed corporate field assessments by a management team sent from Tacoma, Washington, which determined that company logging operations were not cost effective (author's interview, 6/9/93).  This logging crew is also the most ethnically diverse of Weyerhaeuser's workforce, with five Native American and seven EuroAmerican members (reported in Faiman-Silva 1997). 

                Weyerhaeuser's contract labor system benefits the corporation by substantially reducing or eliminating various production costs which are borne instead by workers and contractors, such as costly equipment like skidders and limbers[1] and worker transport costs to widely scattered worksites on their estimated 890,000 acres of active timberland in the region. Also, the company does not bear costs to maintain permanent workers who may not be profitably used throughout the year; nor must it provide costly workers benefits such as health insurance, vacation pay, and other employee benefits, further eroding already sub-standard wages.  Workforce sub-contracting and other down-sizing measures have reduced Weyerhaeuser's local unionized workforce by nearly one half since the late 1970s, from a high of 2,800 to 1,525 in 1993 (author's interview, Woodworkers W15 Local President, 6/8/93).  "We have had to get lean and mean and competitive, and more profitable," said Weyerhaeuser's Public Wright City Relations Officer (author's interview, 6/2/82).

                The Woodworkers Local W15 representing Weyerhaeuser's unionized workers, has vocally opposed Weyerhaeuser's use of contract labor throughout the 1980s and 1990s not only for its exploitation of local workers but also because it erodes full time jobs and brings in outside contracting crews, taking jobs away from the local community (author's interviews, McCurtain County, OK, Grannis, AR 6/5/82, 6/8-6/9/93).  Called by one worker "a snake without a head" for its ruthless treatment of its rank and file workers both in the field and at the bargaining table, the company has persistently refused to entertain unionization of its contract workers.

                                                                 Chicken Processing, Minorities and Women

Like Weyerhaeuser, Tyson Foods, Inc., with a regional workforce of approximately 1,600, is a fast-growing company, which relies on product diversification, cheap labor, and technological innovations to process locally 1.3 million chickens a week. Tyson Foods, Inc., opened a processing plant in Broken Bow, Oklahoma, in 1969, where its approximately 1,200 workers processes 100,000 chickens an hour.  Tyson also supports approximately five hundred chicken breeder and broiler houses, some corporate owned (author's telephone interview, 8/2/95). 

 A particularly attractive job option for local unskilled minorities and women, fifty-seven percent of Tyson's local workforce is female, and seventy percent of workers are minorities: twenty-five percent Native American, thirty percent African American, and fifteen percent Hispanic. 

                                Tyson Foods, like its neighbor, Weyerhaeuser, uses a variety of highly successful entrepreneurial strategies to maximize profits and minimize costs.  It recently purchased Louis Rich Foods, a Phillip Morris-owed subsidiary.  In 1992 it bought Louis Kemp Seafood and Arctic Alaska Fisheries, Inc., to diversify its food production enterprises.  Also in 1992 Tyson Foods expanded its operations in Mexico, by linking with Mexican poultry producer, Trasgo SA Company (Wall Street Journal, 6/24/92, B,4; 8/28/92, B,4; 6/11/93, B,3; 3/2/92, B,4). 

Tyson, and its predecessor Lane Chicken Company, notorious for their anti-union views and union-busting practices, have persistently resisted unionization efforts throughout the 1970s, '80s and '90s.  One worker at a local chicken plant told that employee efforts to unionize a shop in Idabel, Oklahoma, in 1978 resulted in termination of about thirty workers.  She quit as a result and was rehired only after she pledged to refrain from further unionization activities.  She said, "I didn't want to go back there but I had no choice.  There was no place else to work" (author's interview 2/23/81).  On-going efforts to unionize the Broken Bow, Oklahoma, plant have met with intimidation and threats by Tyson management, and so far have been unsuccessful. 

Tyson has not been reluctant to use illegal labor and marketing practices.  In 1993 the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found Tyson guilty of illegal labor practices at an Arkansas poultry plant; and court decisions in 1992 gave chicken growers rights to organize, efforts Tyson and other chicken processing companies actively resisted (Wall Street Journal 8/12/92, B,6; author's interviews, 6/93).

The regional economy dominated by these MNCs has given rise to a racially and gender-stratified job opportunity structure, where women and minorities are over-represented in the more poorly paid, labor intensive chicken processing and unskilled tree-planting and tree maintenance occupations, while white males dominate the skilled occupations.  Woodworkers Union data show that of its approximately fifteen hundred unionized workers, eleven hundred are white, eighty are Native American (>5%), three hundred African American (20%), and twelve Hispanic.  Long-time Choctaw workers claim that they have been overlooked in promotions to supervisory jobs for which they were qualified, and no Native Americans worked at the company's Wright City corporate headquarters in the 1980s.  Contractors, on the other hand, hire women, minorities, and even illegal aliens, often exploiting them with sub-minimum wages paid under the table to do intermittent and dangerous work, such as insect control and tree limbing (author's interviews, 6/8-6/9/93). As earlier noted, women are over-represented in lower-paid chicken processing jobs and under-represented in better-paid timber industry jobs.  Weyerhaeuser's local unionized workforce is currently only about 15 percent female, while women comprise 57 percent of Tyson's local non-unionized workforce (author's telephone interviews, 8/17/96, 8/2/95). 

                                                                                                        Choctaw Workers and MNCs   

                Choctaw workers, unlike fully proletarianized urban workers, are not wholly submerged in the wage sector as landless workers, but are semiproletarians (see Giminez 1990), relying on wagework combined with domestic subsistence activities. By supplementing wages with hunting, fishing, foraging, and craft production, along with public and tribal assistance programs, and otherwise "making do," Choctaw householders shoulder many of the costs to reproduce their own labor force, reducing corporate costs.  Furthermore, the community (and its workers), rather than Weyerhaeuser or other private employers, bear the costs of low wages and seasonally available work, because workers collect unemployment or public assistance or resort to other subsistence strategies, such as gardening, hunting, odd jobs, even collecting aluminum cans, to compensate for low or erratic wages (See also Hedley 1993; Collins and Gimenez, Eds. 1990).  In the gender stratified rural households, women's informal unpaid subsistence activitites, commodity production, and resource sharing subsidize underemployed and poorly-paid male timber workers, adding value to household wages (See also Shelton and Agger 1993:39; Ward 1990; Collins and Gimenez, Eds. 1990). These hidden forms of "corporate welfare" bring added profits to corporate owners in this poorly-understood and frequently-overlooked cycle of underemployment and labor marginalization.             

                Corporations, like Weyerhaeuser and Tyson Foods, do benefit local communities through "trickle down" effects of jobs creation, tax payments, and other operating incentives.  However, these benefits mask the ways in which local communities subsidize corporate profit-making and are themseves exploited as a cheap, secondary labor force.  In the arena of corporate profit-making, publics--both individuals and communities--are subverted, indeed mystified--by entrepreneurial enticements, while they shoulder the effects of peripheral economic exploitation.  

                Choctaws in the early 1980s were divided in their opinions of Weyerhaeuser's economic impact on them and their communities.  Some noted that young adults could find only the most undesirable jobs, such as seasional tree planting or chicken processing, which paid only at or slightly above minimum wages.  Others, however, argued that Weyerhaeuser had made employment prospects more stable and jobs more reliable, particularly for those willing to travel the seventy-five or more miles to its Wright City timber processing plants.  Tribal and Durant city officials --and Weyerhaeuser spokespeople themselves--touted Weyerhaeuser's contributions to local communities, such as school scholarships, which amounted to $50,000 annually. 

                Older retired workers voiced the underlying contradictions of the private enterprise/welfare-subsidized economy, when they pointed out that their own lives actually improved only after they stopped working.  Said one man in his mid‑sixties,

                Living improved after I stopped working.  Now I have a steady income from my VA pension.  When I worked I earned six dollars per day on the average doing odd jobs.  I              was laid off a lot.  My kids missed school because I was laid off and I couldn't afford to send them.  We went to Texas to pick cotton when we couldn't find work around here.                  The whole family helped the best they could.  It was a harder life for us then (6/17/81). 

Some recognized that it was not better job opportunities but enhanced public sector benefits which had improved their living conditions, along with the so-called "mutual help housing" program, instituted in 1969 under the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which provided much-needed low-cost housing to rural Choctaw families.  Public Assistance benefits, mutual‑help housing, and reliance on domestic subsistence provide most households with sufficient cash and material resources to meet their basic necessities, albeit below federally recognized poverty levels.  Several individuals pointed out how the housing program had dramatically changed their lives.  One said,

                Life has definitely changed for us for the better.  We lived in a two‑room house growing up.  We had no running water, an outdoor privy.  If it weren't for the housing deal, we never would have been able to buy a home (5/28/81).

                Little more than a decade later, sentiments have changed drastically, particularly for Weyerhaeuser's full-time timber workers who have seen their comrades disappear into the ranks of non-unionized contract workers with corporate downsizing and the move to contract labor.  Fearing the loss of their own jobs, they sullenly talk of Weyerhaeuser production quotas, speed-ups, watchful bosses, and the likelihood that today's paycheck will be their last (author’s  interviews, 6/8-6/9/93).

                Many workers, however, do not link their strained financial cirucmstances to corporate production strategies.  Individually focussed, some value the freedom and independence part time work affords.  Others did not blame Weyerhaeuser for hiring them only part‑time or seasonally, since most did not actually work directly for Weyerhaeuser, but for their own kinsmen.

                Meillassoux (1981:128) illuminates why semiproletarian workers like the Choctaws do not perceive themselves as truly exploited.  The wage laborer who leaves the domestic sector to participate in wage labor, "...has access to cash which is scarce and 'dear' in the domestic sector...[and] the prospect of a relatively higher income compared to that which is possible for him using the same labour power within the domestic mode of production."  Even though the wage laborer in the capitalist sector is underpaid, "...his immediate income is nevertheless raised, because, on average, the productivity of his labor has been increased" (1981:128).  The wage earner, however, must contend with exploitation, lack of job security and inadequate wages (See also McGuire and Woodsong 1990). 


                                                The Enclave Political Economy: "Corporate Welfare" in County

                                                                          Assessment and Taxation Policies

                If the more obvious effects of corporate development lie in local labor force exploitation, corporate profit-making strategies also involve indirect methods of book keeping, land assessment, and capital investment, not so readily comprehensible to outside observers.  These strategies further deplete local resources and return vast profits to corporate producers, often unbeknownst to the local communities where production and profit making occur. 

                Local communities penetrated by MNCs rely on property and sales taxes revenues, which often entice local citizens to welcome corporate development schemes in their communities.  Local property and sales tax and land assessments--the heart of the local revenue base--often favor corporate land‑owners, undermining revenues returned to local communities (See Flora, 1992:131ff).  This process is particularly evident in the Choctaw Nation timber industry at the county level. 

                Weyerhaeuser is the single largest property tax payer in Pushmataha and McCurtain Counties, where the majority of its Oklahoma timberland is located.  Evidence shows, however, that Weyerhaeuser has not paid its fair share of the county property tax burden, because appraisal methods assure that its property tax rates are extremely low when compared with the land's actual market value.  For instance, Weyerhaeuser's timberland in both counties, amounting to about 808,600 acres, is assessed in a category similar to agricultural land, to compensate for periods of non‑productivity.  But in fact, Weyerhaeuser paid a property tax rate of only $6.50 per acre in 1981, while agricultural producers in McCurtain County paid $17 to $25 per acre. Weyerhaeuser's timberland was assessed at little more than two percent of its fair market value (assuming that timberland was worth a mere $300 per acre).  Weyerhaeuser acknowledged this shrewd business advantage in its own corporate literature: "This massive asset [approximately 11 billion cubic feet of timber located on nearly 6 million acres] is valued on our books at only $614 million, its historic costs of acquisition, planting and growing, which is only a fraction of current market value" (Weyerhaeuser Annual Report 1982:8).

                Since 1969, Weyerhaeuser's average annual timberland growth rates have doubled due to intensive technological innovations in clearcutting and reforestation with genetically‑improved fast‑growing species (Weyerhaeuser Annual Report 1988).  Weyerhaeuser's own calculations show that their timber and timberland are undervalued by more than two and one‑half times when the value of assets is adjusted for changes in the purchasing power of the United States dollar (Weyerhaeuser Annual Report 1981:47).

                Attempts were made in 1982 to alter Pushmataha County's tax structure to bring in added revenue, because as one local newspaper claimed, "Pushmataha County is going broke" (Talihina [Oklahoma] American 4/8/82).  One proposed solution was to increase all county land values to a uniform flat rate, a move which would have hit Weyerhaeuser hard.  This solution, according to news accounts, "hit a snag called politics," since everyone was related and no one wants a greater share of the tax burden than his neighbor (Talihina American 4/8/82).  An alternative proposal, a two cents sales tax, was more popular, although this regressive taxation policy burdens wage‑earners as consumers, while the corporate landowners remain largely unaffected. 

                In 1987 the Pushmataha County tax assessor appealed to County and State Equalization Boards to revise how the county's managed timber is assessed, based on scientifically determined categories of soil type.  The tax assessor sought to increase the assessed value of managed timberland to $10.45 per acre.  Weyerhaeuser, along with Nakoosa Paper Company, filed suit in District Court in 1990 challenging Pushmataha County's land reassessment efforts, and out‑of‑court settlement was reached temporarily setting the value of managed timberland at $8.69 per acre.  The Court subsequently ruled in Weyerhaeuser's favor when it determined that the asset be classified as "waste timber" rather than in a higher "managed timber" category, a move which County spokespeople describe as "very unfair." 

                Pushmataha County is the only one of five counties where Weyerhaeuser owns managed timberland that is addressing the problem of land assessment equalization based on scientifically determined categories of evaluation, to more equitably distribute tax liabilities.  Since 1990 Weyerhaeuser has sold off more than half of its Pushmataha County timber holdings, over 100,000 acres, to John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company and a company subsidiary called Forestree, with corporate offices in Birmingham, Alabama (author's telephone interviews 3/29/90, 8/14/96).  Corporate strategies appear to be to consolidate its local forest base by dispensing with less productive acreage. 

                These profit-maximizing strategies reflect the power and influence of private entrepreneurs, at the expense not only of the local community's labor force but also of the community at large.  Weyerhaeuser can drastically undervalue its timber resources for tax purposes, a practice which is simply one manifestation of the systematic exploitation of satellite economies by metropolitan‑based corporations.  In the long run, local populations are deprived of revenues from their input both as a labor force and as a supplier of basic raw materials, while the wealth extracted from the community accrues to the corporate owners.


                                                     Fighting Back:  Tribal Development Strategies and Bingo!

                Since the mid-1980s the Choctaws have devised various economic strategies to solve the tribe's persistent poverty and underemployment woes, in response to federal government initiatives during the Nixon era "New Federalism" initiatives aimed to increase tribal self-determined economic development (see Snipp and Summers 1991:170-171).  Under the 1975 Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act (PL93-638) and the 1988 Indian Gaming and Regulatory Act (US Title 25, S441), federally recognized tribes including the Choctaws were encouraged to undertake entrepreneurial ventures as a way of building more viable, self-sustaining tribal local economies.  The Choctaws, under these so-called "New Federalism" mandates, developed a variety of new economic initiatives.  In 1985 the tribe took over administration of the 52-bed Talihina Indian Hospital, renamed the Choctaw Nation Indian Hospital, and three outlying health clinics, which together employed over two hundred people.  The tribe in 1998 received federal funds to expand the hospital complex.  A second tribal initiative was acquisition in 1986 of the 256-acre Arrowhead Lodge, located in the northern Choctaw Nation, which was renovated to provide beach accommodations, amphithetre, and a 12,000-square-foot convention center (Bishinik 5/87:2; 2/92:1). 

                The boldest and potentially most controversial tribal undertaking was in 1987, when the Choctaw Indian Bingo Palace opened at Durant, creating about 140 additonal jobs and now the centerpiece of an invigorated tribal economic development strategy.  The Durant bingo palace attracts approximately 160,000 people per year, 80 percent from Texas.  In its second year of operations bingo netted more than one million dollars in profits.  Currently the tribe operates bingo concessions in four separate Choctaw Nation locations.  Since opening the Bingo Palace, the tribe has opened smoke shops in Idabel, Pocala, Hugo, Arrowhead and Durant, Oklahoma, as well as travel plazas along Highway 69/75 and at other Choctaw Nation locations using bingo concession funds, thereby diversifying the tribal economy (Bishinik 1/97:8).  The Choctaw Nation Indian Bingo complex now includes two full-service travel centers, each located on opposite sides of Highway 69/75.

                Tribal economic growth, built largely on highly successful bingo and travel plaza enterprises, has provided an economic cushion during the 1980s and 1990s when federal entitlement programs were slashed, allowing the tribe to pick up the slack where federal and state monies were unavailable.  The Choctaw Nation has become in effect a branch of the U.S. welfare state bureaucracy, channeling substantial profits into what were previously federally- and state-mandated programs.  Indeed, the tribe's entrepreneurial initiatives have brought significant improvements to the lives of local Choctaws, through a myriad of tribally sponsored subsidy programs, jobs, housing and health care.  The Choctaw Tribe, however, like US subsidy programs generally, serve as another form of "corporate welfare" for the multinationals, subsidizing underpaid and frequently underemployed workers for local extractive and food processing industries that rely so heavily on unskilled, readily-available workers.  The rural economy gives rise to diverse forms of "corporate welfare," including tax breaks, labor contracting, parttime labor use, public sector subsidies, and household subsistence.  The Choctaw Nation and Southeast Oklahoma generally typify the core/periphery relationship, not only in external control of local strategic resources, particularly timber and natural gas, but also in the peripheral workplace's reliance on unskilled, underpaid, surplus workers, often women and minorities, who subsidize their own inadequate wages through domestic subsistence activities, petty commodity production, and otherwise "making do." The real winners are the MNCs, whose trickle down benefits mask real corporate exploitation of local communities and their citizens. 

                Rural non-reservation Native Americans, like the Choctaws, exist in an ambiguous and tenuous relation to this rural hinterland economy, as they seek to retain viability culturally, while working to provide a substantial economic base for their citizens.  What hangs in the balance is Native American cultural integrity.  As the Choctaws win in the new economic frontier of Indian gaming, entering an economic niche that could enrich them for decades, they face an uneasy future that pits tribal sovereign rights against not only corporate entrepreneurial interests but also U.S. definitions of tribal sovereignty and self determination.  The Choctaws have become in essence another rural ethnic sector vulnerable to the loss of key features that make Native Americans a unique ethnic minority sector, facing formidable challenges to their tribal cultural integrity (See Faiman-Silva 1997:22-25, 205--207, 219-224).

                Culturally the Choctaws face new tribal challenges as they redefine what it means to be Native American in the twenty-first century.  They struggle to accommodate to a rural enclave economy dominated by external agents, as they seek to preserve cultural integrity in the face of a tribal life only marginally distinguishable from rural communities nationwide.  Does tribal sovereignty linked to economic self-sufficiency signal eventual cultural demise for Native American such as the Choctaws?  Dean Smith (1994) and Cornell and Kalt (1990, 1992a, 1992 b) maintain that it is just this mix of effective leadership, shrewd business entrepreneurship, and cultural preservation that spells the formula for Native American cultural and social persistence.  Smith (1994:177), however, notes the inherent tension in the mix: "Only when the individual tribe both controls its own resources and sustains its identity as a distinct civilization does economic development make sense; otherwise the tribe must choose between cultural integrity and economic development."   As they enter the twenty-first century, the Choctaws' ability to survive as a cultural entity may serve as a benchmark for an evolving ethnic subcultural reality among Native Americans throughout the United States and indigenous people globally in the context of nation-states, multinational corporations, and global communities. 


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1.  A skidder is a truck used to drag logs to transport vehicles, and limbers strip extraneous limbs from trees.