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A work in progress

LAS VEGAS – Cans filled with vibrant colors of red, blue, yellow, orange and green paint lined the stage to kick off the Reservation Economic Summit 2010.

Soon, a Cherokee, Creek and Osage artist, Yatika Fields, sauntered up to the cans, dressed in blue jeans and a knit cap, and furiously painted colors on a large easel in front of a live audience of hundreds of tribal business attendees.

Then, Litefoot, a Cherokee singer, bounded from behind the scenes, clad in a suit and sporting a close-cropped Mohawk hairdo, rapping an intense song filled with lyrics like, “put down the bottle” and “your pen is your arrow.”

Dancers in feathers later joined him, circling the painter as the rap blared in the background.

By the end of the opening ceremony, held at the Las Vegas Hilton Feb. 22, a complete picture was revealed with a strong turtle image superimposed over several symbolic Indian business-focused images.

The artistic live event was a way to showcase a strong, yet underappreciated, breed of Indian business, said National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development Chairwoman Margo Gray-Proctor.

The Osage tribal citizen wants to use her leadership tenure to focus on the business side of Native American entertainment endeavors, since she feels those arenas have been vastly underutilized by tribes.

Gray-Proctor’s appreciation for entertainment could be symbolized no greater than when she leapt onto the stage during day two of the event wearing a bright red dress and sang the lyrics of the famous Commodores song, “she’s a brick house.” The audience of tribal business leaders greeted her with big laughs and bigger applause.

Despite RES’ unique ways of highlighting Native entertainment, Gray-Proctor said the field is serious business.

In an on-stage interview session with three Native cast members of the popular “Twilight” movie franchise, Gray-Proctor probed about the difficult parts of making it in the business.

Gil Birmingham, a Comanche citizen who plays Billy Black in the films, feels a responsibility not only to promote his career, but also to make sure Indian country is respected – never an easy task.

Litefoot echoed that it’s important for Native artists not to sell out, plus he feels it is important for tribes to support their own. He lamented at one point during the summit that many tribal entertainment directors don’t hire Native performers, especially modern ones, because they don’t think there’s an audience for them.

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“Why don’t we see the worth? We have to know our worth,” the entertainer said of the lack of tribal support for Native entertainment.

“Go back and tell your communities that we are out here, that we want 10 percent representation. Tribes should be supporting us.”

In a RES learning session focused specifically on the Native entertainment business, Quanah Spencer, a lawyer with Williams Kastner, discussed some legal issues facing individual Indian artists, like intellectual property rights and music publishing agreements. He said the most important message was to be very careful about signing away too many rights.

“You’re a business. Make sure you run yourself like a business,” the Yakama citizen said.

Several artists later asked Spencer to place the information on his firm’s Web site, and RES organizers promised to publish his talking points on the summit’s Web site.

Arigon Starr, a Native playwright, musician and actor, said during the session that it’s important for Indian artists to network with other Indians who have made it in the industry.

“Don’t reinvent the wheel,” the Kickapoo citizen said with a laugh. “Just steal.”

She learned some of her own tricks for promoting her endeavors by working as a press relations assistant for the 1980s TV show, “Matlock.”

Jackie Jacobs, a spokeswoman for the Quileute Nation, which is showcased in the “Twilight” films, said entertainment business issues often go beyond individual artists, adding that other tribes could learn from the Quileute experience.

She said the film franchise has helped expand tourism on the small reservation greatly in the past couple of years – something she said tribes should be willing to embrace. Her tribe has coped by partnering with Native-based organizations to help promote tourism, cultural and other business activities.

A handful of Native American films, including Litefoote’s documentary short film, “Reach the Rez,” were also screened during the event.

Gray-Proctor said the entertainment focus in 2010 was the beginning of her larger goals for years to come, noting that she’d like the annual summit to one day include a film festival to support Native artists.

“It’s my dream,” said the Horizon Engineering Services Co. president. “So you know it’s going to happen.”