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First South Dakota tribal chamber focuses on economic development, entrepreneurship

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KYLE, S.D. - With a goal of creating an environment to spur business growth on the Pine Ridge reservation and help new businesses with a strong start, the rapidly growing Area Chamber of Commerce zeroes in on networking strategies for economic development.

Although the new group held its first meeting only last month, some 800 membership packets have been assembled to be distributed to potential members in business and tourism to help promote an area which has long struggled with a volatile economy. While other areas in the nation enjoyed a booming business environment, the Pine Ridge, like most reservations in the Northern Plains, had few resources to assist American Indians in promoting their businesses.

"There are some real positive things happening," said Executive Director Gloria Tyon-Kozak, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, adding that the chamber will apply Lakota values such as honesty, wisdom and generosity to economics.

The fledgling organization has 14 active members and is the first chamber of commerce on a South Dakota reservation.

The seeds were planted nearly a year ago when the chamber was incorporated through the state and received non-profit status. More recently former Lakota Fund Director Elsie Meeks wrote a grant proposal to hire a chamber director, which coincided with a renewed interest among local business people to form a chamber which recently received its charter from the tribal council.

"The entire membership has a long and demonstrated commitment to the reservation communities," the director said.

"We immediately focused on membership," which is open to American Indian and non-Indian businesses and groups with annual dues of $40.

One of the new members, Golden West executive Dwight Flatt, said his company has joined a number of chambers. "I think it's been long overdue. I think the challenge is to develop a stronger business climate that is good for the entire area."

"Hopefully this will be the betterment of reservation and bringing in tourism and business to the area," said Leonard Lamont, a plumbing contractor who is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

Tyon-Kozak spent the past few weeks getting office space in order at the Lakota Fund Building in Kyle and assembling three mailing lists of contacts for the chamber.

She traveled off the beaten path to find potential members and tour smaller communities on the reservation to gain a clear idea of resources that can be promoted.

Other tribes have voiced an interest in starting a chamber and asked for direction on how to do it, she said.

Reservation communities across the nation want to improve promotion of their businesses and assist in building new businesses, she said. "They want small businesses and big businesses. They want business period."

An assortment of foundations have called to indicate willingness to fund various projects such as education and credit counseling services, she said.

One under consideration is a partnership with the public school system to provide a course giving high school graduates a background in managing finances.

Monna Patton, new chamber president, said the move began a grass-roots effort among area business people to help businesses expand into a larger market place as well as promote American Indian-owned businesses.

"It's worked really well," said Patton who is seeing renewed interest in American Indian businesses and tourism on the reservation which had to overcome a somewhat tarnished reputation.

People living in nearby border towns and the state's governor suggested several years ago that tourists stay away from the reservation, claiming it was an unsafe place to visit.

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The chamber is working to put such fears to rest and show the marketplace the area has much to offer including a wealth of places to see and historical sites to visit.

In addition, Tyon-Kozak said the reservation can offer tourists wonderful, small businesses filled with art the tourists can take home. Bed and breakfasts in the area can provide tourists with a unique experience exploring the reservation and tours are being lined up for those who want to sample the area's culture and history, she said.

The Lakota Fund used Department of Agriculture Rural Development grant money to fund a director and pay expenses. The chamber budget for the year includes a $100,000 grant from the Oglala Oyate Woitancan Empowerment Zone and $28,250 from the Lakota Fund. A liaison will be hired to help the executive director with vital networking tasks.

One of the most important aspects of the director's job will be public relations and lobbying to improve the economic climate for reservation businesses. She will work with the state's congressional delegation to develop avenues to spur economic growth, she said.

Tyon-Kozak also is looking at a larger picture hoping to bring business ventures such as large warehouse distribution centers to the reservation.

"I would like to see a Wal-Mart distribution center out in the Badlands."

Eyeing the potential in the global economy board members set a Web site as a priority for fueling further ventures. Tourists from other nations are looking for the opportunity to take tours and visit the reservation.

Another goal is the development of a Lakota Heritage Center in Pine Ridge with a visitor center, a small business development center, consumer credit counseling and a "one-stop" capital shop including a bank with commercial lending.

During an April 9 meeting, the diverse, regional group listened to consultant Terry Albers, a chamber member originally from the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, who talked about avoiding pitfalls that often rip such organizations apart.

Albers, who has worked as an organizational consultant for businesses and school districts nationally, told the group board members often start out with the best of intentions and lose their focus. He warned of toxic personalities that attempt to stymie nearly every initiative and reminded the newly formed board to overcome negative reactions by not letting them derail the chamber's direction.

Simply avoiding a power struggle within the organization will help it move toward its goals, he said.

"Focusing on what there is to gain rather than how much power might be lost" is the key to sustaining such organizations, Albers said.

He said chamber members will have to push beyond people continuing to accept prevailing conditions instead of changing elements to improve the economy.

"It's easier to suffer than to try to change things," he said.

Vital to fueling economic development is bringing in employment. He reminded the group that successful working parents are the role models who help lower dropout rates.

Albers, director of the tribe's welfare-to-work program, said the dropout rate on the Pine Ridge reservation was 70 percent in 1970 and today is 68.9 percent. The long-time educator said he saw that successful students generally came from homes with one or more working parents.

Chamber officials have been working with similar organizations in Chadron, Neb., and Rapid City and with the state of South Dakota to assist in attracting tourists to the area. Membership in the national chamber of commerce is on the agenda.

"Many Lakota are first-generation entrepreneurs and need help with business basics," Tyon-Kozak said. The chamber stands ready to assist them in any way possible.