Native Proposes Reservation Business

A University of Colorado doctorate candidate supports the idea of putting call centers on reservations.

From the halls and classrooms of urban academia, one Native American is touting a plan that could make it possible for people to stay on rural reservations and earn a fairly decent living, an opportunity that’s sometimes been elusive.

Calvin C. Pohawpatchoko Jr., a member of the Comanche Nation, is a Ph.D. candidate in an interdisciplinary program in technology, media and society at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He supports insourcing call or data centers that can be based at a distance from their customers (compared to outsourcing to India, the Philippines, or other places).

The idea is not without drawbacks—for cost-conscious business leaders, services abroad might still be cheaper in terms of educated workers commanding relatively low wages in unregulated working conditions, but in America’s job-starved economy insourced call or data centers might provide social capital.

Call centers involve employees who seem to belong to a computer firm, for example, as they respond to questions from callers, but generally they are employees of the call center. Data centers, sometimes combined with call centers, store data for others, as in digitizing data for states and the transportation industry as part of a growing global field.

Pohawpatchoko says educated workers are a critical component for reservation-based business, so ventures near tribal colleges or universities might be a place to start. He notes that in South America, for example, “it’s the role of universities” to create economic skills and economic stability in the area.

One challenge for Indian America is that more than 50 percent of Native American students drop out of school before they graduate, 20 percent may go to college but only half graduate, so “we may be left with 10 percent actually graduating from college,” he notes.

Other hurdles include elected tribal councils that may change every two years or so, sovereignty issues that could discourage outside investment, and lack of funds for needed infrastructure, he said.

Some reservations have already taken the plunge into call and data systems, a field which Powhawpatchoko, who worked as an employee of Electronic Data Systems has watched with interest.

Cayuse Technologies, owned by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, offers such services as digital document processing, software development and a call center to governmental and commercial clients.

The tribally owned firm in northeastern Oregon was initiated “to diversify the local economy and to create living wage jobs that allow people of the Umatilla Reservation and surrounding rural communities the opportunity to live and work on or near the Umatilla Reservation and their homes,” reads the Cayuse website.

There are other data or call center enterprises in Indian country, one of them Lakota Technologies Inc., in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation, where jobs are scarce. The firm has 10 to 15 tribal members as employees, primarily in data conversion work and it is “an opportunity for our people economically,” said Candace Le Beaux, operations supervisor.

An umbrella organization of seven tribes and several Native nonprofits, the Intertribal Information Technology Co. LLC, was formed primarily to meet Department of Defense needs for advanced digital formats and through its Native American Document Conversion Program “has created employment for as many as 500 people in Native communities [including Eagle Butte] typically suffering 50 percent or greater unemployment.”

Pohawpatchko lauds these and other ventures: “We haven’t really grasped the idea of sovereignty itself—we still have the mindset of trying to catch up. We should always be looking forward and seeing what could be done.”