Cheyenne River banks on high tech

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EAGLE BUTTE, S.D. - The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe (CRST) Telephone Authority may have laid a golden egg, says General Manager J.D. Williams, who added he believes it was no accident.

Lakota Technologies, Inc. (LTI), in the basement of the CRST Telephone Authority, is a new tribal venture designed to import high technology jobs to the reservation.

"We knew that infrastructure had to be in place to create economic development. We knew also that technological development was going to be taking off, and it's really accelerated in the last three to four years," said the manager. Williams is the executive officer of both LTI and the telephone authority.

The authority, established by the tribe in 1958, was the first tribally owned telephone company in the nation and Williams says it is the foundation of the tribe's economic development efforts. Its assets are in excess of $10 million with a service area of 4,600-square miles and more than 2,600 subscribers.

Members of the telephone authority board also are directors of LTI. A major key to Lakota Technology's development, Williams said, was the tribe's decision to seek help early on from the Small Business Administration which designated the tribe as an 8(a) firm which allowed it to become a "preferred supplier" for the federal government.

Williams gives much of the credit for LTI development to Orville Mestes, former economic planning director for the telephone authority.

The plan began with a trip to the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota, to a company called Uniband.

"When we got there we saw this parking lot filled with new cars. We saw tribal people working in good jobs. We were definitely impressed," Williams said.

The first fruits of that trip emerged three years later when, on Jan 26, 22 employees began work at LTI. The company offers computer processing and data preparation and processing, with plans to branch out into a variety of information services in the near future. In partnership with a company called CGSI, LTI will send 10 tribal members to Tampa Bay, Fla., this spring to train in call center operation.

The call center is a source of excitement for CRST Chairman Gregg Bourland. He thinks the call center and other proposals will allow Lakota Technologies to provide hundreds of jobs in the near future.

"That's really just one project," Bourland said. "We're also working on a major deal with IBM." Because of negotiations, the chairman declined to provide details.

Of all the projects in development by the tribe, Chairman Bourland thinks Lakota Technologies is the most important.

"We estimate that through the automatic data processing wing, which currently could employ up to 25 people, will ultimately employ - depending on the nature of the contracts we've procured - somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 to 500 people in the next three to four years."

"Then we have Lakota Technologies in their call center wing. The deal with CGSI is to train 10 managers in their call center operation so that they can come back and set up, eventually, up to 200 more jobs. In addition to that, we're looking for further opportunities for this company."

The chairman said the tribe is looking at other economic development.

"We have also decided that we are entering into an agreement that will help us build our own house manufacturing plant here."

The chairman said a system is operated by the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota.

"To be frank with you, we're a little tired of having other people come here, build their houses, reap a very large profit and then take it back home."

Bourland said the tribe sent delegations to Minnesota to look at a manufacturing plant and representatives of the company have come to Cheyenne River. He declined to name the company.

The chairman believes the house manufacturing enterprise would provide 75 to 100 jobs for tribal employees year around.