Entrepreneurial sector is key to Indian country development


While many groups seeking social change have opted for takeovers of tribal buildings, governmental overthrows and other protest methods, in the long-term analysis, the quiet revolutions involving economics are the ones that often seem to make the real difference.

As quiet revolutions go, we are inspired by the many small businesses and growing marketing efforts springing up around Pine Ridge Reservation. A current series on such developments by Indian Country Today reporter David Melmer offers an instructive window on the incremental but steady change that small, even home-grown enterprise can bring to a reservation community. The quest to put a workable idea together with some start-up capital, plus the willingness to work the long hours needed to build a thriving business, provides a major stimulus. Not all people have what it takes. It requires vision, mission, grit and commitment, old fashioned determination. If you make it, and don't go broke, you end up with a project that you can love, can feed your own family, can employ and help other local people get started in their own dreams.

It is not easy. Like some other large tribes, Pine Ridge has been plagued by extremely high-level unemployment (60 percent to 80 percent) for several generations. Besides work on the family homestead or small ranches, or perhaps in the few and far-between grocery stores or gas stations, young reservation people don't have many opportunities to experience work as a daily activity. However, for those who grew up with or adapted to disciplined, daily work schedules, the development of small enterprises is a great opportunity and extremely effective in building a reservation economy. One by one, these small businesses are growing and showing signs of generating a grass-roots movement that can help change the face of poverty, joblessness and despair.

Some tribes are growing exponentially economically due to well-placed and well-run high stakes casino and other gaming enterprises. Tribal government, in those cases, must own and regulate these businesses as national enterprises that fund government services. It has become one established model. However, a large number of Indian reservations, far from population centers, with extensive land bases and spread out communities and homesteads, are mired in one long-standing poverty cycle. As tribes each apply the specific model of economic development that can work in their context, one very important model for economically depressed tribes is the generation of small businesses that can stimulate revival.

In the series, "Pine Ridge Revival," we meet people like Angie and Jesse Reyes, whose Kyle, S.D. restaurant is a success due to planning, hard work and a little help from new reservation initiatives that made it possible to obtain financing when needed. We meet people like Mona "Sissy" Patton, whose Lil' Angels convenience store now employs up to 54 full- and part-time employees. Patton has led the way in community improvement projects such as sidewalks for the elderly and was instrumental in the community obtaining two fire trucks for its volunteer fire department. We meet people like Jesse Clausen, who returned to the reservation four years ago and used his own investment to start up a construction business. Clausen employs some 20 people regularly, who learn business and construction skills. Clausen is keen to encourage the virtues of sobriety.

Patton, the Reyeses, Clausen and other small entrepreneurs make the case for grass-roots efforts that encourage people to do for themselves. Relying on tribal government or federal bureaucracies to provide for the basic needs of the people is a mistake, they say. Even under the best of circumstances, governments simply can not replace the free-flowing energy of regular people applying creativity, family discipline and self-interest and public goodwill to enhance the economic profile of a community.

Increasingly, the importance of a growing Indian economic private sector is recognized. One reason is that it stimulates circulation of money within a community. This is what creates a viable reservation economy. When all money bounces out of a community to border towns, for lack of available goods or services on the territories, no economic base is built. Pine Ridge, like so many other reservations, has little economic infrastructure: no banking or loan system, no department stores, no furniture stores, no auto dealers. As new, small businesses spring up, not only are jobs created, the circulation of money among community enterprises sustain ongoing opportunities.

For Pete Homer (Mojave), president of the National Indian Business Association, which represents 24,000 Native small businesses, this Indian private sector is "the engine for new job creation and economic growth" in Indian country. In testimony before Congress this past spring, Homer supported passage of the Native American Small Business Development Act. He has worked tirelessly to encourage Indian small business opportunity. That initiative is to help create Small Business Development centers, with training programs that introduce trainees in business development and marketing, provide initial funding for chambers of commerce, computerized data resource centers that identify capital sources for investment and lending and other services. Another encouraging initiative involves the Community Development Financial Institutions (CFDI's), which are starting to spring up in Indian country. These are crucial efforts to provide better access to financing for small Indian enterprises. One CFDI, the Lakota Fund, is quite instrumental in the Pine Ridge revival. There are CFDIs at Hopi (Hopi Credit Association), at Eagle Butte (Four Bands Community Fund), and others, some ten in all. A new program to assist the creation of more CFDIs in Indian country is underway. (See www.treas.gov/cfdi).

This positive trend must be encouraged and supported. We call on the more highly financed tribes with gaming economies to consider investments that support Indian country private-sector initiatives, particularly among Great Plains and Southwestern tribes. This can be one component of an inter-tribal economic assistance program, an Indian "Marshall Plan," as some have dubbed it, to do everything possible to raise all tribal economic waters. "No tribe left behind," might be a good motto for such an economic movement.