Construction in Indian Country Conference Addresses the Need to 'Grow Our Own'


The Construction in Indian Country initiative, now approaching its first decade of success, started with a roundtable of a few wise men—former Navajo Nation Chairman Peterson Zah; community manager for the Gila River Indian Country, Urban Giff; and Jeff Begay, a Navajo reservation native from Teestow (Big Cottonwood Tree). The three discussed mistrust, misconception and misunderstanding between Indian leaders and construction industry personnel.

“Those discussions evolved into what we have today, a model to be duplicated around the country,” said Diane Humetewa (Hopi), special advisor on American Indian Affairs at Arizona State University’s Del E. Webb School of Construction. ASU, with 1,300 Native American students, is one of 150 research universities in the U.S. and of that group is the largest producer of Native American graduates.

Addressing the 9th annual Construction in Indian Country conference at Wild Horse Pass Hotel & Casino in Chandler, Arizona last week, ASU President Dr. Michael Crow noted: “We need to work together—the university, tribes, construction companies, the government…everybody…to share ideas, thoughts and knowledge. We need to talk less and build more. We can make things happen, but we need to do them together.”

“We originally got together to learn to trust one another,” said Begay, manager of business development in the Kitchell Contractors Native American Division. “Initially, architects provided services to Indian Country and contractors were brought in later, but Indian communities didn’t trust the contractors who bumped up prices because they were entering unfamiliar territory. This yearly conference was inaugurated to let everyone network and team up in a level playing field—and it’s working.”

Honest brokering was the phrase and it’s happening on a more frequent basis according to Humetewa. “We needed to ensure the tribe was getting a good product and that vendors understood that doing business in Indian Country was different than business-as-usual. Delivery of services has gotten better and more companies are sensitive now to the tribal decision-making process.”

In a previous CIIC gathering, one of the speakers opined that necessary trust could be created and nurtured through candor, cooperation, and commitment—candor in listening well and understanding concerns, cooperation in the exchange of accurate information, and commitment to not undermine the other party—the ultimate point being to end up with a quality product.

While incremental progress can be measured in terms of outside contractors, the ultimate goal is to “grow our own,” according to Humetewa. “As Indian Country continues to evolve, we need planning and development to help sustain our communities and who better to do it than tribal members who are intimately familiar with conditions and problems?”

So the 25-member board of the CIIC continues to push for more native involvement in the actual construction process. “When we see a building going up, for the contractor it’s just another structure, but for a tribal member, it’s a health care facility or a school, a building with a purpose,” said conference coordinator Kimberly Silentman-Kanuho (Dine). “We value those structures and want them to be well-built. Contractors may leave when a job is done, but those buildings will be there in perpetuity and we want to make sure they’re done right the first time.”

Conference board member and this year’s event Master of Ceremonies, former Hopi Tribal Chairman Wayne Taylor added: “We’re at a point now where we’re building out basic infrastructure and we want to be able to have Indian Country peoples go through the construction training and apprenticeship, thereby growing our own and having them come back to be project managers in every step of construction.”

Toward that end, consider the success of the American Indian Construction Management Grant and Endowment program. Started with a single $100 contribution to support American Indian students to graduate in the construction program, the endowed funds balance now tops $350,000.

“We are unique in striving to provide construction industry education for native peoples,” said Silentman-Kanuho. “We’re a perfect model for others and we’re moving forward to being the main resource, the hub of building in Indian Country.”