TULSA, Okla. - The American Indian Chamber of Commerce of Oklahoma has a diverse membership that includes Native American and non-Native individuals and businesses as well as non-profit organizations. The chamber, which was started in 1990, is a volunteer organization funded through membership dues and corporate sponsors.
Dan Bigby Jr., is president-elect of the chamber's State Board. He describes the chamber's goals as promoting American Indian business coupled with the idea of economic self-sufficiency for Indian people. "In general terms that includes everybody. We're more interested in the individual entrepreneur than tribal businesses, yet a lot of tribes and their enterprises are members of the chamber," Bigby said. "Our ultimate goal is to address the needs of the individual entrepreneur. Back when this first started there was not much out there to help Native Americans write their business plans or that sort of thing, we're here to change that."
The president-elect joined the chamber a few years ago and immediately found clients for his video production company, BIG Productions, based in Stillwater, Okla. "I like to talk about how the chamber works in personal terms," Bigby said. "We moved our company from New Mexico to Stillwater; we came home. One of the first things we did was attend a chamber function and met a lot of people and we joined that night. From that very first day we started generating business. We met what turned out to be a long-term client, and we have been doing business together for seven years now, and through that chamber network we have generated all kinds of business. The fee is pretty cheap, really, and it has paid off a thousand times over." Bigby's company is best known for creating the recent PBS documentary, "The Great American Foot Race."
The chamber has a membership of more than 500 Native owned businesses involved with their statewide organization, with Chapters in Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and South-Central Oklahoma. The president-elect talked about the political power that the chamber helps to give to Native Americans in elections. "We have the monthly luncheon, that's where the networking opportunities happen," Bigby said. "At a chapter level there have been several fund-raising functions. The thing I like to brag about is that in the last election cycle for the State Governor, all the candidates felt the need to speak to our chamber, and that's totally unprecedented not only in Oklahoma, but throughout the country. The Indian vote is usually ignored, but not this time; I think that's highly significant, and they approached us, we didn't have to hunt them down to get them to speak. The fact that (former Republican Representative and NFL star) Steve Largent lost, I like to attribute to the Indian vote; (Oklahoma's current Governor) Brad Henry would not have gotten that Indian vote if he hadn't addressed the chamber. Largent came and said 'I don't know anything about your issues.' The chamber doesn't take a political stance, but affords people the opportunity to speak. The membership makes up their own mind. I think that's one of the things that keeps us successful, we do operate on a consensus basis, and we avoid issues that are not business related."
When asked what kind of special problems a Native American chamber has that is unique, Bigby answered with two words: "One Nation," referring to the Oklahoma group dedicated to attacking the concept of tribal sovereignty. "We're doing the legwork right now to do something," Bigby said. "Some of the things we have in mind at this point are to deal with the root cause of One Nation's misinformation. The chamber, I feel, is the vehicle to generate good PR that Indian people need. This is definitely a business issue because One Nation wants to legislate us out of business, so it's something that the chamber needs to address. We're formulating a strategy that would be effective. As individual entrepreneurs we are making our own way, we are paying our taxes, and personally, I don't collect a check from anybody except my customers. That's the sort of thing that people don't understand."
When asked about the ingredients it takes to make a successful Native American chamber, Bigby noted that it's not a very difficult combination. "First of all, you have to generate some interest, and that's easy. One thing that the chamber provides to its membership is a social outlet. Many of us go to our business every day and it's easy to become isolated, where the only people you see are your customers or clients. The chamber provides an opportunity for business owners to get together on a social level. It's not like other institutions where you have a social/infrastructure in place, so having that social outlet is important. We get to hang out with Indians that have a common experience in their day-to-day lives."
There are many Native American chambers throughout the country, and the Oklahoma chamber is involved in trying to form a National Chamber of Commerce for Native people. "We have friends in California, South Dakota, Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada," Bigby said. "There are several states around the country that has active chambers, but I think Oklahoma's has probably been active longer, and I would dare say that our membership is larger than any other state."
Bigby noted that the chamber is very proud of their "Support Our Troops" program on their Web site. "It was implemented during the war earlier this year as service to our people," Bigby said. "You didn't have to agree with the war, but our Indian people were out there communicating with folks back home, and it was something that they appreciated. Back at the height of the conflict the Web site was generating 40,000 hits per month. It was phenomenal and very well received."
For more information on the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of Oklahoma, visit www.aicco.org.