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NIBA gala encourages job creation

WASHINGTON - As one of his colleagues noted, Pete Homer has found his "sweet spot" in government contracting.

For those non-baseball fans that need a reminder, the sweet spot of a bat is where the big solid base hits come from. By that standard, Homer hit one - hit it right out of the park at the National Indian Business Association annual conference held earlier this month. A series of panel discussions and workshops, as well as a trade show, familiarized the many attendees with the fine points of federal contracting, several trends in federal procurement, and the progress of several legislative bills that could affect Indian small business.

But at the gala awards dinner that has closed the conference every year for the past seven; the NIBA president and chief executive officer brought its many themes back to the one that compels him: job creation. These jobs may begin with federal contracting through several programs that can narrow the competition for fledging businesses. But they must end in private sector enterprise, without the prop of preferences. As a NIBA honoree, Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., also noted, the hope of reservations is "a full-blown private business sector," and that must eventually mean the land use and uniform commercial codes that provide a "comfort zone" for private sector investors.

Homer, with his long background of business success and service to Indian enterprise, would surely agree with all of that. But in his closing remarks, before a tuxedo and gown audience subdued by mention of Sept. 11 - an anniversary commemorated in a traditional presentation of colors, a moment of quiet and an honor song from the drum - Homer spoke for modest beginnings. He said that creating any job in Indian country is one of the most important things one can do.

"Creating a job in Indian country is like creating a new culture," he said, a throwback culture to the times when Indian peoples traded across the continent with one another.

A. Brian Wallace, chairman of the Washoe Tribe, sat at one end of the raised banquet table as Homer spoke. He had taken a leading role at the conference, championing Tribal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families programs as a way to "capitalize on the potential of our people." His theme was that TTANF programs can be structured to serve tribal tradition, preparing young people for adulthood, with its responsibilities to work and to provide for others. From these modest beginnings along traditional lines, tribes can intervene in the welfare culture that has characterized the reservation era.

From there, a critical mass of changing attitudes can build into an environment of personal responsibility and entrepreneurship - until, as Homer emphasized, traditional culture may be realized in the form of trade.

The fulfillment of that vision will be a long time coming, but it's the modest beginnings that count most right now. Earl Old Person, former Blackfeet chief and current Blackfeet tribal council member, an elder esteemed throughout Indian country also seemed to have modest beginnings in mind as he put cultural intervention in the context of time. He described tribal council meetings from the 1950s, when only a chairman and secretary had documents out before them, in stark contrast with today's paper-chasing council chambers - and better-informed council members.

"Today ? in many ways you are walking equal with those people who were leading you," Old Person said.

And tomorrow? Old Person's expectations are great and patient. "We have many years to go yet. I'll be gone. Many others will go. We don't have time, the elders. ? But you're gonna be there. You set the pace for the younger ? You're not going to know what they will do with what you gave them. But they're gonna know what you set up for them."