Colbert eyes another test of national chamber concept

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FREDERICKSBURG, Va. - With his elevation to the American Indian Chamber of
Commerce of Oklahoma, J.D. Colbert hopes to revisit the potential for a
national Indian chamber of commerce.

Colbert, executive vice president for the Chickasaw Nation's Bank 2 in
Oklahoma City, was in the Washington area Dec. 13 for a meeting of the
First Nations Oweesta Corporation, an affiliate of First Nations
Development Institute in Fredericksburg, Va. The week before in Oklahoma he
was elected to the AICCO and also received an invitation to join the
Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.

In addition to addressing the other priorities of the positions Colbert
plans to test the waters of an idea that ran aground two years ago. With
the Chickasaw hosting, the governor declaring an "American Indian Chamber
of Commerce Week" in Oklahoma, and an assist from the U.S. Department of
Commerce, representatives from 10 Indian chambers developed the
organizational documents and appointed officers of a United States American
Indian Chamber of Commerce. They settled on Washington as a base and issued
statements declaring a spirit of cooperation and respect in advancing
Indian business interests nationwide.

But the initiative faltered on the issue of defining Indians. Given Indian
eligibility for federal contracting preferences, it's a money issue among
other things.

In only two years since then, however, a number of issues have arisen that
suggest the time may be right for national Indian business initiatives that
spread the message of private sector prosperity. Taxation of tribes may
come up in the 109th Congress. The untaxed $17-billion-a-year Indian gaming
industry may tempt a spendthrift federal treasury. Declines in domestic
discretionary spending - the part of the national budget that funds tribal
programs - are scheduled to become more pronounced after 2005. And
prospects for raising the profile of inter-tribal business through a
national conversation suffered a setback with the November defeat of Tom
Daschle, the Senate Minority Leader who had agreed to spearhead the
initiative.

Above all, the reasons that a national Native chamber made sense two years
ago remain valid. Colbert gave these reasons as fourfold:

A national chamber of commerce will raise the visibility of Indian-owned
businesses, so that they are less of an afterthought among national
decision makers.

It will make fundraising easier for local chambers. Grantmaking
institutions with a national focus will be more inclined to support one
national umbrella organization, rather than seeming to favor different
regions of Indian country over others.

Programs and services will benefit because with national funding, a
national chamber would be able to support any deserving business
development program in Indian country, rather than focusing only on those
associated with local member chambers.

A national chamber could develop an affiliated Community Development
Financial Institution in order to make small business loans that might not
fit within standard banking practices and federal regulations.

Local Indian chambers of commerce, the necessary building blocks to any
national entity, have made impressive progress in recent years. At least 16
have been established, from coast to coast and at many points in between.
In their various incarnations, they offer visibility for Indian businesses,
technical assistance for start-up entrepreneurs, networking among
successful professionals, federal procurement opportunities, counseling and
mentoring, and Web-based information.

Altogether, the chambers are fulfilling several of the recognized
precedents of a thriving private sector in Indian country. On one hand,
they provide networking among the people and institutions that circulate
investment capital. On the other, they are helping to build within
communities the critical mass of business interests that can nourish a
private sector.

In the meantime, they are bringing out the many business success stories
that offer a counterweight to the usual fixation on discouraging news from
Indian country. Recently the AICCO told the story of Data Video Systems, a
Muskogee-based company that sells, assembles and installs fiber optic and
electrical wire. Among its long-term, multi-million dollar clients are the
U.S. Department of Energy and the Arkansas penitentiary system. DVS
harvested a number of honors in Oklahoma for its work, and was ultimately
named the national minority technology firm of the year by the U.S.
Commerce Department's Minority Business Development Agency.

Similarly, the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin recently
featured Belonger Corp. of West Bend, Wis., a woman-owned sheet metal
fabrication shop that does about 75 percent of its business with the
federal government under diversity policies. Belonger also demonstrated a
trend Native women should take note of - women-owned businesses, in
Wisconsin and nationally, are doubling the growth rate of new companies
generally and outpacing them in revenues.

A national chamber would permit one-stop features for capital access and
procurement where appropriate, as well as a national presence focused on
inter-tribal business.

It's a tall order, but Colbert for one is willing to give it a second
chance.