LOS ANGELES – California is vast Indian country with 263,000 Indians, according to Census data. Many are so-called urban Indians – reservation members living away from traditional homes – partially the remnants of the Indian Relocation Program of 1956 that encouraged rural Indians to take jobs and residences in cities. Others are local Indians, members of the more than 100 federally recognized tribes across California.
One organization brings more than 300 Indians together. The American Indian Chamber of Commerce of California, based in Los Angeles, brings a unique coalition of urban and local Indians to champion Indian-owned businesses by linking business-to-business ventures and mentoring and providing business educational opportunities to small start-ups and family operations.
“We are very diverse, from the at-home mother working at home to a $1 billion construction firm,” said chamber President Tracy Stanhoff, a citizen of the Prairie Band Potawatomi and Choctaw nations.
The chamber provides networking with 38,000 Indian-owned ventures in California, generating some $26.9 billion, the most of any state. The next closest state is Oklahoma with 17,000 firms, according to 2002 Census statistics.
“We set it up where we try to buy from other Indian-owned businesses and we have very high profile corporations that a small operation would be able to benefit from,” said chamber treasurer and Northern California Coordinator Randy Twist, Cherokee. Those opportunities are available at the four special events the chamber organizes throughout the year. They include an annual Warrior Award luncheon and Expo and Golf Tourney.
The chamber offers more than revenue potential. It offers a community to Indians long dispersed across California. “That’s a big part of it; it’s rediscovering that community. It creates a sense of community among the urban Indians,” Twist said.
Since the chamber’s humble beginnings in a southern California home in 1994, non-California Indians from all over the country discovered that community over spaghetti dinners. “We were all sitting there asking ourselves ‘so we are going to start this but where is it going to go? Who are you? What tribe are you from and where is your family from?’” Stanhoff said.
The community doesn’t end with urban Indians. Local California Indians, doing well with casino revenues – Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians and Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians – helped the chamber get its footing by sponsoring luncheons and conferences.
“We ended up hooking up and becoming friends,” Twist said of the chance meeting with Dry Creek Rancheria Pomos in an elevator at an Indian conference. Since then the Pomos regularly host luncheons for the chamber.