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Building successful Native businesses

Put yourself back in time. The late 1960s was a period of great change for
Native peoples in this country. It was a reawakening - a renaissance. After
the dark years of forced relocation, termination and assimilation, the air
was suddenly charged with the energy of the Civil Rights era and the Indian
"Red Power" movements, of the occupation of Alcatraz Island in San
Francisco Bay, and the rise of the American Indian movement. Suddenly,
small - but increasingly more influential - groups of Native peoples began
protesting the injustices of their daily lives. We began making our voices
heard.

It was at the end of the decade, in 1969, that seven Native businessmen in
Los Angeles decided the time was ripe for an organization that would both
encourage and provide opportunities for other Native business people around
the country. The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development
- first known as the United Indian Development Association - was born. Its
purpose was to create American Indian business opportunities and to
alleviate many of the problems facing Indian communities. The strategy - a
simple one which remains at the heart of the National Center's mission
today - was to help Indian peoples achieve self-sufficiency.

Let's go back even farther in time to put this into perspective. For
thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans to these American
shores, Native peoples lived in prosperity with thriving bartering
economies. Trade networks were vast and stretched across this continent. We
were shrewd traders, but we also were compassionate neighbors, for we knew
that in order to survive - and thrive - we would have to depend on the
generosity of others during lean times. Sharing of our hunts and harvests
was a common occurrence and we did this gladly. However, this spirit of
generosity and sharing was not limited to other indigenous peoples. It
continued after the Europeans began settling the land around us - and even
taking our land from us. One of the most famous examples is the generosity
of the Wampanoag people at the first Thanksgiving following the bitterly
cold winter of 1620 - 1621 - an act of generosity that without a doubt
saved that hapless group of Pilgrims from certain death.

It is one of the greatest ironies of history that our generosity toward
others was rewarded by warfare waged against our peoples; the introduction
and spread of new and deadly diseases for which we had no immunity; and the
near destruction of once healthy lifestyles, communities, languages,
cultures and traditions. Needless to say, after all that, our economies
also were in shambles. Indian people were quickly forced into abject
poverty - the likes of which we are still battling today to overcome.

It was centuries later that we would begin recovering from all the
devastation and start rebuilding what was nearly lost to us. In our own
lore at the National Center a powerful story has been preserved for our
future generations. As early as the 1940s, the idea for a "National Center"
was envisioned by our elders. This National Center, as our elders saw it,
would be a place to help American Indian communities regenerate what we
once possessed in great abundance. Indeed, that is what has happened.

Business ownership was once just a dream for many of us growing up on the
reservation. A generation ago, many of us were told that we had to leave
the reservation and go to the city to be successful - or just to get a
decent job. For those of us who were forced to leave, or who left at our
own prompting, the work prospects were often grim. Forget about owning
one's own business.

In 1969, there were less than five Native-owned businesses in this country.
According to the 1997 Economic Census of the U.S. Census Bureau, there were
197,300 American Indian and Alaska Native-owned businesses. In 2005, I
suspect that number well surpassed 200,000. What a remarkable achievement
in just 35 years.

Today, the National Center also secures more than $670 million annually in
procurements and financing for American Indian-owned businesses. This
translates into approximately 13,400 jobs that are created annually through
the assistance of the National Center. The National Center's annual
"Reservation Economic Summit (RES)" - taking place in Las Vegas, Nev. - has
contributed in no small part to the opportunities that have opened up for
Native-owned businesses. Visit RES's "Procurement Pavilion" and you will
see Fortune 500 companies and large government agencies eager to meet
one-on-one with our Native businesses. Many contracts and business
relationships have been forged in just this manner. Some of the tribal
enterprises that I have personally seen flourish through the years, as a
result of National Center assistance in terms of advice, marketing and
technical assistance, include: the Mandaree Enterprise Corporation, N.D.;
Laguna Industries Inc., N.M.; JKT Development, Inc., Wash.; Lone Butte
Industrial Development, Ariz. and S&K Electronics, Inc., which spawned S&K
Technologies, Inc., Mont. American Indian entrepreneurial-owned companies
include: All Cities Enterprises, Calif.; Nichols Precision, Ariz; and Metro
Video Systems, Inc., Calif.

The socio-economic status of Indian people is still woefully below that of
the rest of the U.S. population as a whole, as a recent study by the
Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development shows. According to
the study, "real per capita income of Indians living in Indian country was
less than half the U.S. level; real median household income of Indian
families was little more than half the U.S. level; Indian unemployment was
more than twice the U.S. rate; Indian family poverty was three times the
U.S. rate; the share of Indian homes lacking complete plumbing was
substantially higher than the U.S. overall level; and the proportion of
Indian adults who were college graduates was half the proportion for the
U.S. as a whole." It's obvious that we still have a very long way to go to
attain a measure of the social and economic wellbeing that many Americans
take for granted.

Our vision at the National Center continues to be the development of
healthy, self-sufficient American Indian economies both on- and
off-reservation. Our strategy is both simple and powerful: to help Indian
people to achieve successful economic development by incorporating,
strengthening and building upon tribal values.

Historically, there have been so few ways for Indian people to rebuild
their economies and communities. Indian gaming has been a wonderful way for
some tribes to obtain a measure of economic self-sufficiency. But, I think
most of us realize that this "white buffalo" may not last forever. That's
why it is so important for us to diversity our economies and find other
ways for our communities to sustain ourselves economically. That's why the
National Center is - and will continue to be - so important.

Kenneth Robbins, Standing Rock Sioux, is president and chief executive
officer of The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development,
a nonprofit organization which has its headquarters in Mesa, Ariz., and six
regional offices around the country, including Washington, D.C. Visit the
National Center at www.ncaied.org.