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Culturally sensitive company builds up Indian country.

By Gale Courey Toensing -- Today staff

PHOENIX - In the midst of the excitement of opening day at a casino in California a few years ago, a woman fell and injured herself. The tribe wanted to have a cleansing and blessing ceremony so that the incident would not taint the life of the casino.

''So we helped with that,'' said Jeff Begay, a member of the Navajo Nation and business development manager of the Native American division of Kitchell Corp.

''It's part of our cultural sensitivity approach to how we deliver construction services to Indian country,'' Begay said.

Kitchell is an $800 million-plus company offering construction management, general contracting and other construction-related services, mostly in the Southwest. The company has developed specialty divisions in health care, custom homes, master-planned communities and in medical equipment/occupancy planning.

Then in 1996, the company built its first casino project - Cliff Castle Casino and Conference Center for the Yavapai-Apache Nation south of Flagstaff, followed by another project in the Gilo River.

In 1999, Kitchell executive Brad Gable, now the vice president of Kitchell's Native American division, founded the division with the idea of providing specially trained people to attend to the unique needs of Indian country dealing with sovereignty issues, special tax situations and the variety of cultural diversity among the tribes.

''Someone who is not familiar with Indian culture can come onto a reservation and can be offensive, overbearing and disrespectful, thus turning off clients in Indian country. So Brad decided a division of Kitchell should be developed specifically for that purpose. We hire people specifically for Native American work; train them for cultural sensitivity in classes. We bring in speakers and have biweekly sessions to talk about various things in Indian country. We get videos and we have a library. We hire lawyers and consultants to come in and talk about different aspects of Native culture and talk about legal issues from way back when and how it all evolved and why we are the way we are, we meaning Native Americans,'' Begay said.

The company has an active Indian-preference hiring program and recruits from colleges, such as Northern Arizona University, Arizona State University and Montana State University. But it also recruits non-Native students: ''Anyone who wants to work in this unique program,'' Begay said.

The Native American division has flourished in the past eight years with more than a dozen projects, including casinos, schools, conference centers, hotels and detention centers.

''We've pursued work and we've done some advertising, but it's basically word of mouth. We have return clients. When we do a project and our client becomes successful with their gaming operation, they might partner with another tribe and help them with their gaming projects. Yavapai-Apaches did that, and that's how we went to California on a couple of jobs we financed. They like our work and we treat them well,'' Begay said.

The company's philosophy is to have its construction management teams become part of a tribal nation's growth and development.

''The concept is to help them build their nations rather than just going there for one job. Our guys really become part of the community,'' Begay said.

Many tribes require blessing ceremonies before construction begins.

''It has a lot to do with asking permission to build on that land, asking permission from the insects and plants and whirlwinds that used to live there. Our people understand that and that's the Native culture,'' Begay said.

Begay has also taken non-Native members of the construction management team into a sweat lodge so that they could become more familiar with and appreciative of the Native way of life.

The division is averaging around $150 million of business a year in Indian country. Current projects include the Valley View Casino for the San Pasqual Tribe in California and an upcoming hotel and casino project in Tucson for the Tohono O'Odham Nation.

Begay, who has a degree in construction management from ASU, said he enjoys working for Kitchell.

''I've worked for other large companies during my growing-up years in the industry. I was project manager, field engineer and so forth, testing concrete out in the ditches as a young buck. This is a company that walks their talk as far as trying to help Native communities, and I like that, being a Native,'' Begay said.