He created an indigenous digital currency. The dream is still alive.

Payu Harris wanted to create a cryptocurrency for his grandma. For all grandmas, he would say, or uncis in Lakota—especially the impoverished ones living on the outskirts of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, with little access to electricity or the internet. He’d argue that MazaCoin could be called a success if she used it every day. If that seems an unlikely prospect, it is—and MazaCoin has had its ups and downs since he conceived the idea. But 10 years on, Harris’s dream is clearer than ever, albeit a bit more complicated than it was at the start. 

Harris was working at the mall near Pine Ridge when he first learned about Bitcoin from a friend. During the day, he’d leave his laptop running to mine coins, checking in during smoke breaks. His story is like that of many other crypto fanatics. Harris grew more invested in the Bitcoin hype, learning to code and reading white papers on his days off. Eventually, along with a coder known only by the pseudonym AnonymousPirate, he built a digital currency, then called the Oyate Initiative, for the Oglala Sioux, a subtribe of the Lakota Nation. He was intent on providing his reservation with a more independent economy. 

In a 2013 Forbes profile of the project, Harris called it the “nerd’s revenge.” Native groups like the Lakota, the same one devastated in the Wounded Knee Massacre over 100 years ago, have deliberated creating an indigenous currency since the early days of the reservation system. Though no such movement has ever really taken hold, the thinking is that a sovereign currency could offer increased independence from the American regulatory system, as well as more control over economic development. 

MazaCoin initially seemed like one of the golden children of the cryptocurrency world. Harris describes the first few months post-launch, in 2014, as something like a sunny press tour: while he rang the opening bell at New York’s Bitcoin Center and attended a meeting at the Facebook offices, MazaCoin soared to a market cap of $6.8 million. But the currency fell almost as fast as it rose, which Harris attributes to controversial coverage claiming that the Lakota leaders knew nothing of the project.

From the outset, Harris set aside 10 million coins as reserve for a Lakota development fund. Apart from the reserve, little sets MazaCoin apart technically from Bitcoin, making it a bit of a hard sell as an appealing “alt coin.” But Harris isn’t looking to court a wide array of investors. He says he didn’t even need the soaring valuations seen at the beginning; he just wants to build a system that can deliver value to native people, starting with the Lakota on Pine Ridge and expanding to other tribes and reservations from there.

MazaCoin’s challenges today are very different from those it encountered a few years ago. Harris and his team realized that in order to establish a national currency, the tribal council needed the ability to set monetary policy. “I was coming at this from the sovereignty aspect,” he says, “but having a currency structure of our own and a vibrant, comprehensive monetary policy is how we’re going to build our economy, it is how we’re going to build our markets, and it’s how we’re going to build for the future—it’s how we’re going to get away from federal funding. Period.”

Tribes have some freedom from US regulations, meaning that new policies targeting crypto might not affect MazaCoin. 

Currently, indigenous nations use the US dollar, making them dependent on policies set forth by the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, and Congress. But as “domestic dependent” nations, tribes have some freedom from US regulations, meaning that new policies targeting crypto might not affect MazaCoin. Harris hopes this insulation could make MazaCoin more appealing in the near future, given renewed federal appetite for crypto regulation. 

In the meantime, Harris has found other uses for all his technology. He’s been working on tokenizing natural resources owned by the tribe, such as unmined gold in the Black Hills or coal reserves that could be commoditized. Harris is also storing tribal treaties, documents, and historic assets on the blockchain to establish an indigenous system of recordkeeping. For him, it’s all about finding new ways to assert sovereignty and pump money back into the reservation.

But MazaCoin is still trying to sort out the basics—courting buy-in from tribe members and trying to raise its value. Harris is appealing to the new interim tribal president to establish an official cryptocurrency office. With covid restrictions lifted, he’s planning a road show to pitch MazaCoin across the tribe and to educate people on crypto basics, like setting up a wallet. 

Harris says he’s noticed an uptick in interest lately as crypto and digital assets like NFTs become topics of more mainstream discussion, but the price isn’t increasing in the same way. “People ask me where I want to see MazaCoin go. It’s not really up to me,” he says. “It’s up to the tribes.”

To support MIT Technology Review’s journalism, please consider becoming a subscriber.​

More Updates

The content on the Renovision Fund website – including logos, photos, descriptions and other original writings and material – may not be reproduced without prior written consent.

Copyright © 2022. All rights reserved.