Business Review 2014: Rural Growth, Milestones, Innovation & Energy

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Before ushering in 2015, Indian Country Today Media Network is taking a moment to reflect on the incredible business advancements tribes, Native entrepreneurs, and Indian-owned or -operated businesses, nonprofits and organizations have made in 2014.

Collectively, we have made great strides and paved the way for success.

The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development (NCAIED) launched business summits across the country, and debuted a business portal that makes various tools more accessible to Native businesses. The $28 billion Indian gaming industry continues to hold strong, while tribes focus on diversifying, and many pursue impressive renewable energy ventures. Reservations are making business training more accessible to aspiring entrepreneurs. And Native business people are championing rural growth and taking initiative to push for federal capital for remote, Indian-owned businesses.

Below, we highlight a few of the big business stories of 2014.

1. Launch of Regional RES Events, National Center Edge

Launch of Regional RES Events, National Center Edge

In 2014, the National Center expanded its reservation economic summits regionally by uniting local tribal leaders, top CEOs, entrepreneurs and other big players in business. The nonprofit group's signature event, National RES (Reservation Economic Summit), held in Las Vegas each March for the past 30 years, continues to gather the country's biggest names and companies in Indian country.

But in 2014, the NCAIED (National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development) significantly extended its reach by tapping into regional markets. So far, events have been held in Oklahoma, California, Arizona, Washington, D.C. and Wisconsin. The forums offer a collaborative networking environment, a trade show and expo with business development tracks and, in Wisconsin, special listening sessions with staff members of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Also in 2014, the Mesa, Arizona-based nonprofit group launched the National Center Edge For Business. The online business development and training ecosystem—edge.ncaied.org—consists of a collection of tools and resources for expanding Native American businesses. Membership in the National Center Edge For Business offers information about global trade, scholarships, awards, procurement technical assistant centers and more, as well as access to other American Indian business people. The site's media center provides new articles, training and business development content weekly. Members have access through multiple devices and get updates on the latest Native business news and trends.

RELATED: RES Arizona Starts Off Strong at Wild Horse Pass

Diversity of Native American Business on Display in Milwaukee

National Center Edge

Also in 2014, the Mesa, Arizona-based nonprofit group launched the National Center Edge for Businesses. The website, nationalcenteredge.com, is still in progress, giving us something to look forward to in 2015. The portal consists of a collection of tools and resources for expanding Native American business. Membership in the National Center Edge for Business offers access to other American Indian business people, and to new articles, training and business development content weekly. Members have access through multiple devices and get updates on the latest Native business news and trends.

RELATED: Portal to Provide Training, Education For American Indian Entrepreneurs

2. Gaming Milestone

Arguable the most impactful achievement in Indian gaming in 2014 was the Bay Mills decision on May 27, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5 - 4 in favor of tribal sovereign immunity. Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, determined Michigan could not sue the tribe for its off-reservation casino that’s been non-operational almost since the day it opened in 2010.

The ruling was a victory for tribal sovereignty as a whole, and the win at the high court assuaged fears of many tribes concerning negotiating positive tribal-state gaming compacts under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA).

RELATED: Bay Mills Beats Michigan; Tribal Sovereign Immunity Upheld

Supreme Problem: One Tribe Pressured to Disregard Sovereignty for Good of the Whole

U.S. Supreme Court - Courtesy Kjetil Ree/wikimedia.org

Interior Secretary – Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn shared his perspective on the Bay Mills ruling with ICTMN: "I feel like we dodged a bullet in the Bay Mills case. The Supreme Court did the right thing and recognized the existence and importance of sovereign immunity, so that’s a good thing. But it makes me nervous to keep testing the limits of tribal sovereignty in this Supreme Court. Sometimes we will lose, as in Carcieri, Patchak, and the tragic Baby Girl case."

RELATED: BIA Head Kevin Washburn Speaks to ICTMN About Bay Mills and Need to Resolve Water Rights

3. Rural Growth

In May 2014, Mark Tilsen, president and CEO of Native American Natural Foods, maker of Tanka Bars, presented the challenges of rural business growth to the U.S. Senate agriculture subcommittee on rural jobs. He testified about barriers to capital access and the lack of infrastructure to support business in Indian country. But he also stood before the committee as an example of success.

"…[W]e created a national brand in the middle of a food desert, and from one of the most geographically and economically isolated places in America,” Tilsen said.

Mark Tilsen testifies before the U.S. Senate.

Native American Natural Foods' Tanka Bars, buffalo-meat-and-cranberry snacks, are sold on 375 Indian reservations and carried in over 6,000 retail locations in all 50 states.

RELATED: Native American Natural Foods CEP Testified About Rural Growth at Senate Agriculture Committee

Indian Business Can Be Successful

In January 2014 in North Central Washington, the Colville Tribal Federal Corp., or CTFC, won a prestigious business award for demonstrating success in revenue growth, size and superior management, as well as commitment to the community.

CTFC generated $86 million in revenue in 2013, up from $49 million in 2010, by cutting costs, eliminating wasteful spending and most significantly, restructuring the business (formerly Colville Tribal Enterprise Corp.) as a federally chartered corporation under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, said tribal member Joe Pakootas, the tribe’s 25th CEO in 29 years.

“When we do business within the boundaries of the reservation on trust property, we are exempt from federal and state taxes,” Pakootas explained.

The tribal enterprise received the 2013 William D. Bradford Minority Business of the Year Award, the granddaddy of seven awards given annually by the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business

RELATED: UW Names Colville Tribal Federal Corp. Minority Business of the Year

Coffee With a Side of Business Training

In 2014, more than one reservation became home to a coffee shop that doubles as a location for teaching business skills. In May, the Cherokee Nation debuted its Kawi Café, which in addition to serving its signature Cherokee blend coffee in downtown Tahlequah, also provides budding entrepreneurs firsthand experience running their own business.

“At Kawi Café, we can educate tribal citizens in a real, hands-on business environment, starting with a business plan and moving into inventory, marketing, scheduling, customer service, payroll and taxes,” Principal Chief Bill John Baker said. “Getting that essential training and experience will aid these potential entrepreneurs into taking the next step of launching their own startup businesses that will create jobs and commerce in our communities.”

RELATED: Kawi Cafe Customers Get Small Business Training With Their Cherokee-Blend Coffee

And also in Indian country, up on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the Keya Café & Coffee Shop in Eagle Butte not only delivers a mean cup of coffee and mouth-watering pastries, it addresses such issues as the environment, job creation, diabetes, and youth life skills.

Suzette Brewer

Seating at the newly opened Keya Cafe. Over the Christmas holidays, staff created the stars hanging from the ceiling.

RELATED: Cheyenne River Youth Project Turns 25, Launches Endowment and Keya Cafe Featuring Homegrown Food

Opened in January 2014 by the Cheyenne River Youth Project, a nonprofit organization that has spent the last 25 years offering youth programs and family services that foster healthy choices and life practices, the Keya Café has created a handful of jobs in an area where unemployment is estimated to be as high as 80 percent by some sources. In addition, the café provided a unique internship experience to over 30 youth by the end of summer.

“These kids become baristas and learn practical skills that can help them to get a job when they go off to college. Plus, it feels good to earn money,” says Julie Garreau, executive director of the Cheyenne River Youth Project, who leveraged their nonprofit status and funding to launch the business.

“We’re raising the bar, and the kids are rising to the occasion. They have to perform and we’re not letting anyone off the hook,” she says. The staff is also seeing how the internship experience is impacting youth’s lives outside of the program. One boy who completed the internship used his money to buy a lawnmower and is now making more money by mowing lawns in the area.

RELATED: Social Enterprise Cafe Builds Life Skills of Reservation Youth

Cheyenne River Youth Project Offering Paid Internships for Teen Gardening Program

4. Diversification

This year, the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) and Blue Stone Strategy Group partnered in an effort to create the first of its kind authoritative guide to 21st century tribal economic development. It’s called Defining the Next Era in Tribal Economic Development: The Diversification Imperative for Tribal Economic Development. Like its predecessor in 1977, Defining the Next Era involves input from dozens of tribal leaders, but unlike the earlier report, the new guide focuses solely on economic development and blends together theory, specific examples and vignettes from tribes and research from throughout Indian country.

Defining the Next Era clearly looks beyond the gaming industry, but acknowledges Indian gaming as the foundation and driving force behind diversifying and growing tribal economies across Indian country. ”Gaming is to be intertwined all throughout [the guide],” the project outline says.

The guide sees the $28 billion Indian gaming business as a mature industry that will continue to generate revenues, but will not experience the huge growth spurts of its early years in the 1990s and first few years of the 2000s. That’s why tribes need to look beyond gaming for growth in the 21st century and that’s why NIGA and Blue Stone are developing this authoritative guide that outlines a path for the next stage in the evolution of tribal economic development, Blue Stone Executive Director John Mooers told ICTMN.

“The guide is meant to be a practitioners’ guide and will focus on real examples throughout Indian country and ready to use solutions with tangible frameworks leaders can utilize from day one as opposed to a comprehensive study, survey, or white paper for academia or policy makers,” Mooers said.

Blue Stone Strategy Group Chairman Jamie Fullmer at the United Tribal Leaders Summit, North Dakota, September 2014.

RELATED: NIGA, Blue Stone Create First Guide to Tribal Economic Development

Among the many ways tribes are finding access to capital to help them diversify is through Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) loans.

RELATED: Native CDFI to Finance Economic Development Programs With $750K Loan

5. Renewable Energy

After squelching a mine, establishing air-quality monitoring and building a solar plant, the Forest County Potawatomi Community sought to set the bar even higher in the renewable energy field.

At the end of 2013, the tribe launched its FCPC Renewable Generation Digester, which essentially turns liquid organic waste known as feedstock into biogas, which is then burned in an engine that produces renewable electricity. Throughout 2014, the digester produced 2.0 megawatts (MW) of “clean, green and renewable electricity,” the tribe said—enough energy to power about 1,500 homes.

The Forest Potawatomi derives more than 55 million kilowatt-hours of power annually from renewables, supplying 105 percent of its energy needs.

Courtesy Forest County Potawatomi Community

Biodigesters operated by the Forest County Potawatomi have netted the tribe federal recognition.

RELATED: Potawatomi $20 Million Feedstock-to-Energy Conversion Plant Becomes Reality

Potawatomi Break Ground on Biogas Plant—Converting Food Waste to Electricity

On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home to roughly 28,000 Oglala Sioux, Henry Red Cloud is leading a green power revolution. He not only sees solar power as a way to reduce home heating costs, but as a way to lead his people out of economic despair. “Last year, more than $1 million was spent on propane and electricity to keep our members warm. We can take that money and turn it around, start some businesses,” he told ICTMN.

In April 2014, the White House honored Red Cloud as one of its 10 “Champions of Change” for their efforts to promote and expand solar deployment in the residential, commercial and industrial sectors.

Red Cloud founded Lakota Solar Enterprises (LSE), one of the first 100-percent Native American-owned and -operated renewable energy companies in the nation, and Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center (RCREC), a one-of-a-kind Native educational facility where tribes from around the U.S. receive hands-on green job training in renewable energy technology and sustainable building practices.

RELATED: White House Honors Solar Energy Visionary Henry Red Cloud as Champion of Change