Native American Chamber Of Commerce partners with corporations

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BROWNING, Mont. – On the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, they’re “bridging the digital divide.” Elders are keeping up with their grandchildren and the new technologies at what was the first of seven Achievement Centers organized across the country through the Native American Chamber of Commerce (NACC.)

NACC celebrated such highlights at The Eighth Annual Walking Between Worlds American Indian Scholarship and Corporate Awards Gala Dec. 4 in Houston. The chamber partners with the corporate world to bring opportunity to the reservations, among other goals.

“Corporate world” means major sponsors like IBM and UPS, Walt Disney and Wal-Mart that have brought technology aid to some of the nation’s poorest tribes.

The sleek line of 12 computers were provided by IBM to the Blackfeet Achievement Center, located at the Blackfeet Manpower employment and education center in Browning. The center’s vision is being carried out to “empower youth and adults to succeed in the realm of computer technology” and “enhance their knowledge and abilities, employability potential, and ultimately self-sufficiency by bridging the digital divide for the members of the Blackfeet Reservation.”

Three years ago, the video terminals began opening up a world of information and now two classes are held a day in computer literacy, at no charge. The courses start with learning how to turn the computer on and end up where ever the learner wants to go.

“We work with anybody that wants to come in, and we can teach them many things, from digital photography to genealogy,” said Blackfeet Manpower Center Director George G. Kipp IV. “Anything that they want to learn, if we don’t have it at the moment, we will find it.”

SeniorNet, a nationwide organization offering computer education to senior citizens, is another partner, as is the Blackfeet Tribe. When the center attains 501c non-profit status, expected in mid-December, it will be able to get even more software for “pennies on the dollar,” Kipp said.

Right now, the center is outreaching to the community in such broad ways as teaching courses like Powerpoint to Blackfeet Community College students for continuing education credit, and linking with the tribe’s Blackfeet Legal Department to teach secretarieshow to navigate Excel.

Dr. Kenneth Crawford, coordinator of the Blackfeet Achievement Center, is proud of another unique program. “We’re doing a program teaching our members the Blackfeet language. The unique thing about this is, the Blackfeet language has so many different dialects. We’ve just discovered that we have the old language on our computer. It’s the old language we will be teaching, the original language.”

In another project, Crawford and the center are reaching out to a cancer institute in Great Falls, Mont. with the hopes of establishing a database on cancer screening for Blackfeet people.

“They were wondering if we could start a Blackfeet cancer registry,” said Kipp. “There are a lot of incidences of cancer here. We’re trying to find out a possible cause of that.”

Through the chamber’s Hope and Harmony for Humanity initiative, corporations are partners in sponsoring American Indian Achievement Centers to improve access to digital information and technology on other low-income, remote American Indian reservations.

Centers are set up with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in Cass Lake, Minn.; at Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo-Tigua in El Paso, Texas; with the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians in Houlton, Maine; at the Cheyenne River Reservation in Eagle Butte, S.D.; and the Pine Ridge reservation’s Wounspe Tech Center in Kyle, S.D.

One center that just opened in September, at the Catawba Indian Nation in Rock Hill, S.C., is an example of so much more going on at all of them – GED courses, work skills training, small business courses, and the momentous occasions of elders working at a computer for the first time in their lives.

“An achievement center can be a centerpiece for job skills development, a source for lifelong learning, a path to opportunity through education, and a vehicle for economic improvement,” said Carroll Cocchia, Native American Chamber of Commerce President.

NACC’s newest venture, championed by UPS, are Native American Career Skills Development Centers, which prepare students to apply directly for employment at several large corporations. The first in Houston has graduated about 100 students since May 2008, and 80 are still employed.

Other sponsors on board include some of the biggest names in business: Sam’s Club, Marathon Oil, The Coca-Cola Company, Verizon, Sysco Foods, Centrix Systems, and Lockheed Martin along with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, Video Professor, the Department of the Interior and many others. See www.namcham.org to learn more.

The Houston-based non-profit Native American Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1999 by Cocchia and is one of about 15 American Indian chambers of commerce in the country.

Cocchia was an accountant who had her own business and started getting involved in cultural organizations in Houston, including two minority business councils. The councils asked her to start a chamber of commerce in Houston, home to 65,000 American Indians. The chamber now has members in 42 states and has been recognized by the Department of the Interior for its effectiveness.

“We realized that you really can’t say that you represent a people if you don’t see how they live and where they live and what their needs are,” Cocchia said. “So that started our cross-country treks and we visited reservations to get to know everyone and find out what they needed and what it looked like we could do for them.”

“The conditions on many of them are horrible – unemployment is very high. … there is a lot of depression. After researching for about four years, we felt like a lot of it could be alleviated one way or another if we could improve education.”

She approached various corporations. IBM was the first to sponsor an achievement center, and has underwritten five of them.

Cocchia was invited by the State Department of the United States to speak before an elite delegation of Middle Eastern education leaders in November. They represented the University of Algiers; University of Batna, Algeria; University of Alexandria, Egypt; University of Al-Azhar, Gaza; University of Iraq at Baghdad; University of Kuwait and the University Abu Deis, Jerusalem, West Bank.

“They told me, ‘so many people don’t recognize that American Indians are still alive,’” Cocchia said. “They asked me, ‘how can you get the message out to the world that you’re still here? I told them we’re in business. … this is how we get the word out.”

“They said they were going to keep in touch. It will be interesting to see how far the relationship goes.”

Overall, the Native American Chamber of Commerce’s mission is to “strive to serve the identified needs of the American Indian/Alaskan/Aleut/Native- owned businesses and serve as a liaison with corporations, governmental, and educational institutions, businesses, public media, other civic and religious entities – and facilitate communications with other community-based organizations.” The NACC “will strive diligently, in a ‘corporate partnership’ to support, endorse, educate, assist, counsel and advocate – working for the positive benefit of our membership, while earning the trust and respect of the entire business community.”