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Engaging in Indigenous Development

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The past seven months have been an interesting succession of opportunities, challenges and lessons learned as my business partners and myself have moved forward on three ventures – developing an LED assembly and testing operation; acquiring a solar panel manufacturing company and preparing to launch a beta factory to begin to refine our ability to manufacture energy efficient, high quality, low cost homes for Indian Country.

At the beginning of all of this my company, Wakaiagon Innovations (Wa ki a gon - Ojibwe for home), had been contracted by Leech Lake Financial Services (LLFS), a non-profit, to conduct a strategic planning session with their board and management. One of the key strategies that emerged was to pursue the establishment of a for profit subsidiary that could engage in economic and community development ventures that would underwrite financial stability for LLFS, pursue “green” business opportunities that would create jobs, and contribute to the economic revitalization of the region.

What resulted was the establishment of Aki Development, LLC as the for profit subsidiary of Leech Lake Financial Services, Inc. (LLFS). Each is tribally chartered for profit and non-profit corporations respectively. LLFS is a Department of the Treasury certified Native Community Development Financial Institution (NCDFI). Aki was created as a vehicle through which LLFS can meet its mission of promoting community and economic development within the Leech Lake Ojibwe Territory and a service area encompassing the 25 mile radius around the Territory.

Almost immediately after putting this together our companies were approached about participating in the planning and creation of a 200 Kw solar garden that would be dedicated to lowering the electricity costs of low-income Leech Lake families.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune ran an article about this project that resulted in Aki being contacted by Rachael Zola – founder of St. Paul based Saga Solar – with an inquiry as to whether or not there was an interest in partnering. We of course said yes and the result of our discussions and negotiations has led to Aki acquiring a 60% stake in Saga Solar making it a Native American owned solar panel manufacturing company.

Saga Solar has been certified as a manufacturer with the “Made in Minnesota” initiative as well as having all of the other required licenses and certifications. This has allowed this re-modeled venture to continue to be a part of the initiative and to become the only Native owned venture to be so certified.

We did experience a “hic up” when we asked the MN Department of Commerce if there would be a need to re-certify because of the new ownership structure. Their answer surprised us. They initially said that if the panels were going to be manufactured on “tribal land” they would not be considered “Made in Minnesota” because “..when you’re on tribal land you are not in Minnesota.”

We had a mixed reaction to this. On the one hand we were elated to finally have a state agency acknowledge that our territories were not part of Minnesota. On the other hand we were offended since we actively participate in and contribute to the Minnesota economy to the tune of millions of dollars every year. Fortunately, three weeks later the Department changed their position and stated: “Even though the panels will be made on tribal lands they will be considered eligible for ‘Made in Minnesota’ certification.” So we are now one of only five companies with this certification.

As we were working through the Saga deal we were approached by a representative of Efficiency Consultants International (ECI) about the potential to become an assembly/testing operation for their products – LED lights.

When we met with the principals they told us they had been trying to develop a working relationship with Indigenous nations and peoples for three years and had not been successful. After some discussion we realized that they had been trying to work through the Economic Development offices or programs of these Tribes/Nations and that for whatever reasons these attempts just never got off the ground because of the bureaucracies and inertia that besets a number of Tribes/Nations when it comes to being able to move quickly and decisively when presented with opportunities. We also learned that it just been bad timing because they had approached a couple of nations who were in the midst of an election cycle and no one wanted to make a decision.

As privately held Indigenous nation chartered companies we sit in a unique position. We are not part of the bureaucracy and politics of trying to engage in development within the territory. We can quickly make our own decisions and take the actions necessary to bringing an idea to fruition.

In both the Saga and ECI deals we saw the opportunity to re-invigorate the stagnated economy of north-central Minnesota by establishing manufacturing operations. We also saw the long term potential that engaging in both industries provided in terms of jobs, skills, and training needed to grow these opportunities into the future. For far too long the only job options within the territory have been to work in either the government or gaming. If young people want to pursue other opportunities they have to leave the territory and move many miles away from us.

The third opportunity we have been working on since 2009 is the establishment of a house manufacturing operation focused on providing:

  1. Housing built to a higher standard and surpasses current codes;
  2. Housing that is durable and robust to withstand a wide variety of climates and conditions;
  3. Housing that achieves the highest efficiencies possible, lowering occupancy costs;
  4. Housing that meets and/or exceeds LEED standards; and
  5. Housing that is economically doable, producing a greater return on investment for the nations and customers.

Housing in Indigenous communities has become one of those seemingly never ending issues that elude resolution. Just a quick review of the current conditions in the U.S. and Canada shows there is a huge need that keeps growing. At present, there is an immediate need for 385,000 new homes and this does not include the projected population growth or the need for replacement homes.

385,000 homes at an average size of 1,200 square feet equals a need for over 460 million square feet of housing. Construction costs range from $260 per square foot in the more remote communities to $140 per square foot in easily accessible communities creating a continental average of $170 per square foot. This means that the housing construction market in North American Indigenous communities has a value of over $78 billion dollars.

We have partnered with House Cubed to pursue a strategy of developing a series of mini factories that can be owned and operated by Indigenous nations or companies and supported by a “mother factory” that provides on-going R&D, engineering, design and development support. We are three months away from establishing our first beta factory that will be used to produce 20 houses for the Leech Lake territory and refine capacity and capability to begin transferring the technology to the mini factories.

What we’ve been up to hasn’t gone unnoticed. On October 6, National Manufacturing Day, the White House issued: FACT SHEET: New Progress in a Resurgent American Manufacturing Sector in which President Obama noted:

“Let us continue working to strengthen and expand the manufacturing jobs of tomorrow and ensure that opportunity for all is something we can keep making in America for generations to come.” -President Obama, October 6, 2016”

Our work has been acknowledged and highlighted with the following excerpt:

Today, local organizations across the country are announcing steps to help more students and adults acquire the skills and resources to tinker, invent, and eventually manufacture their ideas at scale, including:

Aki Development, LLCa tribally chartered and operated business on the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Reservation, and manufacturer subsidiary Saga Solar, SBC will work with Leech Lake Tribal College to develop and implement a curriculum for students focused on photovoltaic manufacturing and installation. This collaboration with the local Tribal community college will train the next generation of solar manufacturers, encourage Indigenous engineering and research, and lead to economic and environmental sustainability in this local community.”

We have learned and will continue to learn much as we pursue these opportunities. We believe we’ve been successful due to several factors that come from our cultural teachings and are intrinsic to our approach to development. First we are able to articulate and set out a common agenda that all of the parties can become a part of while still maintaining their autonomy to pursue their own growth. This then leads to mutually reinforcing approaches and activities. Thirdly, there is constant communication amongst all of the participants. In the midst of this communication “natural alliances” emerge. What we mean by this is that individual participants are able to identify other ancillary common interest activities they can pursue separate from the larger group that will eventually bring benefit to the greater goal.

This ability to envision a greater good coupled with the fluidity and natural dynamics of pursuing a vision has been an Indigenous strength for generations.

Lastly, everyone knows we are not planning only for today or a short-term future. The “glue” that holds this together is the shared belief that what we are doing must bring benefits to the seventh generation in the future.

Mike Myers is the founder and CEO of Network for Native Futures, a Native non-profit that works with Indigenous nations, communities and organizations internationally. The network's mission is to support sustainable development and nation re-building through providing of technical assistance, training and consulting.