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Building Blocks: Forming Relationships Between Tribes and Construction Companies

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Arizona’s annual Construction in Indian Country conference has played so well for the past seven years that they’ve taken the show on the road. Call it CIIC 101 if you will, with the first traveling seminar held in Tucson last month and other free-of-charge shows planned for Scottsdale (February 18) and Flagstaff (March 18).

Seminar kickoff speaker Urban Giff, former operations and community manager for the Gila River Indian Community, told the group: “I’ve been supporting this effort since B.C. --- Before Casinos” and have seen progress in our mission to “form positive relationships for all concerned.”

“The idea here is to help tribes and the construction industry get along and figure out how to get quality projects built in Indian country. It’s an as-yet-untested response to tribal requests for us to bring our construction expertise to where the tribes are,” added seminar coordinator Roger Owers of Arizona State University’s Del E. Webb School of Construction.

The annual gatherings, begun in 2004, started as a project organized by former Navajo Nation chairman and then ASU Indian Affairs Advisor Peterson Zah (now retired); the director of the School of Construction, William Badger, and private industry construction manager Jefferson Begay, a former “Alumnus of the Year” graduate of the ASU Construction Management curriculum, who remains active as both a supporter and a presenter.

In kicking off an earlier such conference, Zah advised: “What’s being built here is not bricks and mortar, but a new relationship between tribes and the construction industry, one based on mutual trust. In the past, mistrust, misconception, and misunderstanding were prevalent between Indian leaders and private industry representatives, all the way from builders and contractors to suppliers. We’re trying to avoid a repetition of that past by learning how to work together (because) the future of the Indian peoples involves learning to work in unison under an umbrella of mutual trust.”

Others expressed similar sentiments with different words.

“Indian Country is my country,” says Begay, a Diné native from Teestow (Big Cottonwood Tree) on the Navajo reservation. “My uncle built hogans out of logs and mud, and I’ve seen the view from both sides of the table. If there’s anything being built on our lands, it should be constructed with quality and delivered with respect and integrity --- in fact, quality, integrity, and honesty should be three integral components of the delivery of any construction services to Native American communities. The whole industry needs to change its attitude when it comes to working in Indian country and these planned road show seminars are good spinoff examples indicative of how successful our educational effort has become.”

Speaker Joe DiVito, who has also seen both sides of the equation as a former employee of the Salt River/Pima Indian Community and now an engineer with a private consulting firm, concerns himself primarily with project management issues, particularly with tribal communities that lack an engineering or planning group. From planning to project closeout, he cautions: “Big things are accomplished as a result of many things done well.”

“We’ve gotten the word out to more than 3,000 people since we began our yearly conferences in 2004,” says Owers, who describes himself as “The Resident Geek” (although his business card reads “Visiting Eminent Scholar,” followed by Ph.D., P.E., and J.D. accreditations).

Adds Begay: “We’ve gotten contractors and architects talking to tribes now, sharing information without being suspicious of each other and talking about how to improve quality and the delivery method while eliminating the use of shoddy building practices, construction schedules that ran behind and a need for contractors to return to make good on promised --- but not delivered --- warranty items.

“Indian country used to be where contractors ran when the rest of the economy was going to hell. It was where they saved themselves and left their dirty laundry. But with few exceptions, it’s not like that anymore. Industry has begun to realize that Indian country has a lot of money and if they want to return to Indian country to do future work, they’ve got to not only promise, but deliver, quality.”

CIIC founder Bill Badger told attendees at one conference: “Indian country has significant construction needs whether it be schools, hospitals, homes, commercial projects or infrastructure. American Indian tribes have a need for quality craftsmanship. With the addition of gaming revenues, federal and local program funding, and increased private investment, the construction market in Indian Country is seeing unprecedented levels of activity and Native American construction expertise must continue to be developed at both policy and administrative levels to meet these demands.”

“We’ve got some momentum going now. We’ve come full circle and our annual conference event has become a self-sustaining entity,” says Owers in announcing the 8th annual get-together, “Tribes & Industry: Partnering for Economic Rebound,” to be held April 25-27 at Wild Horse Pass Hotel and Casino in Chandler where sponsors again expect to draw some 500 attendees.

In fact, the Construction in Indian Country efforts have become so successful, they’ve caused their own problem --- by raising $280,000 in scholarship endowments but not having enough Native American construction students available to apply for those funds. Although the Native American student population at ASU has more than doubled in the past decade, to date, a mere 50 students studying a construction curriculum have been assisted financially.

Pleased with their progress to date and anxious to share the big picture of what they’ve learned over 7 years of conferences dealing with relationship/legal/technical/financial considerations, Owers says: ”We’re hoping to expand even further, possibly by hosting the conference in a larger venue like Las Vegas or Southern California --- or even taking it international. There are other countries that have similar indigenous populations like we have in the Southwestern United States and Alaska, and are working on issues similar to ours, so we’re saying we might take the information we’ve gained in our efforts to date (a database of over 200 White Papers or Power Point presentations) and taking it to other countries over the long term.”

Tucson seminar attendees were quite a diverse lot that included representatives of Navajo, Salt River/Pima, and Pauite tribes sitting next to consultants/designers/engineers/architects/builders from Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and as far away as Alaska.

By the time the day had ended, all had been made cognizant of the concepts previously expressed by former Navajo Nation leader Albert Hale at a similar gathering in Phoenix: “The items you’re dealing with have a long history replete with tales of woe. We have a history where a lot of companies have come to reservations and departed with Native American money, leaving behind some real shoddy products --- homes that fall apart and buildings that sink into the ground. I believe this type of conference is the beginning of a process where we can overcome scenarios like that, developing mutual respect between tribal governments and companies who truly want to help Indian nations develop their economies and infrastructures.”

For further information on upcoming Arizona State University Del E. Webb School of Construction roadshow seminars in Scottsdale and Flagstaff or, the annual conference in Chandler, log on to, e-mail to, or phone (480) 727 3105.