Historically, most tribes were pushed to the least desirable areas of the country, one of the biggest obstacles to Native real estate development, said Mr. Trevan of Gun Lake Investments. Real estate deals also require access to financing and business divisions that can operate independently — and more quickly — than tribal government. He estimates that only 12 tribes have the governance structures in place to “optimize” economic development outside of gambling.

Ten miles from Scottsdale, Ariz., the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community is one of the tribal communities that have built sizable real estate portfolios over the past few decades. (Other examples include the Tulalip near Seattle, the Winnebago of Nebraska and the Southern Ute in Colorado.)

Through third-party developers and its own development arm, Salt River has built a shopping and entertainment complex, an automotive retail center, and a training facility for…

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