Blackfeet entrepreneur helps people throughout world


HELENA, Mont. - Damon Schlenske's resume - urban firefighter, author, prison worker, horticulturist, college instructor, small business owner and international consultant - pretty well tells the story. This guy's been around.

Schlenske is using that diverse background to help Indian tribes get their economic feet on the ground.

"There are lots of tribes interested in improving their conditions," he says. "If we're going to progress, we can't regress.'"

At 49, he has his finger in many pots. His umbrella firm, Native American Trading Corp., has several national and international ventures under it, everything from medical supplies and nutritional counseling to international business development, housing outreach, assisted-living centers, and many things in between.

"What we're doing is replicating the heritage of a Native American camp," he says.

"Instead of getting commodities, we're creating commodities. We're not arrogant about it, we're confident. This is an accumulation of a lot of years and a lot of people helping, and it's all coming together."

Schlenske works with tribes across the nation on gaming and natural resource development, repatriation of sacred items, protection of religious sites and water-related matters. He's also behind a major effort to develop Native American "trading marts" on as many reservations as possible, especially those that have casinos and other gambling establishments.

The idea, he says, is to enable tribes to more readily tap into tourist dollars, which will only pass them by if they aren't proactive.

While casinos can draw outsiders in, some visitors quickly lose interest in gambling, he says. A "trading mart" stocked with Indian-made goods, Native artwork, and other merchandise can draw even more income for tribal entrepreneurs, he contends.

"A lot of tribes have done real well with it," he says of gaming. But they shouldn't stop there, especially considering that the federal government "is putting a real squeeze on our people" with increased controls.

The "marts" he envisions on gaming reservations nationwide could attract non-Indian investors, especially when the absence of a sales tax can be an enticement. He figures they could be tied together through the Internet and online catalogs - merchandise could then be ordered from nearly anywhere in the world.

Schlenske, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe, says he's willing to try most anything to help tribes become more successful, because in many cases the old ways of thinking haven't worked.

"I've always been fascinated by the opportunities offered by tribes and tribal governments, but I've always been surprised there's not a lot of successful ones," he says. "All that we do really is link up with Indian reservations interested in economic development. We have a whole menu of things."

Tribes can create federally recognized free trade zones, as on the Tohono O'odham Reservation in Arizona which can open up a number of new horizons for tribes.

On the Tohono O'odham, Schlenske works with an Australian outlet to provide tribal members with homes they can lease to own. He's working with tribes in Oklahoma and California to set up their own assisted-living facilities for the disabled and elderly.

"It's a big market," he says of the care-center concept. "Our Baby Boomers are coming. We feel there's a tremendous need out there. We work it out with the tribes so they eventually own it."

Schlenske works out of his Helena home, as well as a downtown office.

Over the past 18 months, Schlenske completed advanced training at the Institute of Nutritional Science in San Diego, Calif. The continued coursework, he says, helped develop more skills to consult clients connected with his health-care enterprises. He was the first president of the National Native American Medical Association and worked on Indian Health Service reform issues.

Schlenske got interested in the health field after seeing how many Indian people, including some of his family members, have ailments and diseases attributable largely to diet and lifestyle.

The Schlenskes also help develop weight control and exercise programs in addition to marketing a liquid supplement which provides natural minerals missing from many diets.

Schlenske was born in Great Falls but spent most every summer, as well as other time, on the nearby Blackfeet Reservation. After high school, he got a football scholarship to Yakima Junior College on Washington state's Yakama Reservation. He transferred to Weber State University in Utah, and then completed business and cultural sociology degrees at Carroll College, a private Catholic school in Helena.

After graduation, he moved north and became a municipal firefighter in Great Falls.

After his first wife died unexpectedly, he took time off from the fire department and started dabbling in business deals, an interest that turned into a full-time profession. Along the way, he earned a master's degree in criminal justice at the University of Alabama. In his spare time, he helps with Bible study classes at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge, about 60 miles southwest of Helena. He formerly taught Native American issues as an adjunct professor at Carroll.

In the international field, Schlenske and his co-workers are helping Chinese officials strengthen ties between the Orient and Indian and non-Indian entrepreneurs in the United States.

Other projects are in the works, as well, but, "The deals aren't going to be made in New York or Miami anymore," he contends. "I'm saying, ?Let's generate our own income now.'"

Schlenske says it saddens him to see so much poverty on reservations, and that's one reason he's committed his life to helping others.

"I take it very seriously," he says. "I take it with my heart. We don't play games, and that's why we're successful. I'm lucky and fortunate to be a Native American. It's given me a perspective and insight I couldn't get anywhere else. I know where I've come from and I know where I'm going."