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One Native’s Enterprising Plan to Keep Tribal Resources Within the Community

There are nearly a quarter-million Native-owned businesses in the U.S. today, said Brian Cladoosby, president of the National Congress of American Indians, in his 2014 State of Indian Nations address. And if Thomas Carlson has his way, all those businesses would be listed on a new website he launched this past January called BuyIndianAct.org, a digital resource that aims to connect Indian Economic Enterprises (IEEs) with products and services made or sold by other Natives.

“The Indian Act is a good thing, but it could be even better if tribes could get together and start focusing their resources back into tribal-owned businesses and recirculate the money,” said the 43-year-old entrepreneur and enrolled member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (Ojibwe) in Baraga, Michigan. “Let’s put Native resources back into the Native community.”

The name of Carlson’s website is a little misleading. He makes it very clear that his site has nothing to do with the government regulation of the same name. “The goal of this website is an effort to expand on the Buy Indian Act to include supporting purchases from all Indian-owned enterprises, whether or not they are engaged in federal contracting,” he wrote on his site. “I tried to get BuyIndian.org, but the name was already taken.”

The Buy Indian Act that Carlson references was signed into law on June 25, 1910, but the final rules to enact it were not officially adopted until July 8, 2013—more than 103 years later. The law requires the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to give preference to Indian-owned or controlled businesses whenever government procurement contracts come up. The BIA must seek bids from at least two IEEs and select one of them, as long as it is a “reasonable and fair market price,” according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Carlson, a former federal agent with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, is now a successful e-tailer in Minnesota who owns five online retail stores, including AssistedLivingStore.com (his first enterprise) and PillowCase.net. “My wife and I started our first business out of our basement with the goal that I would eventually quit my federal job and do this full time. I had a lot of cases go to trial, and I was under a lot of stress,” he explained the reason for stoking his entrepreneurial fires. “Before long, my online business was far exceeding my federal pay, so it was time to quit.”

Now Carlson hopes to give a digital leg-up to other Native business owners, too, by offering them a free listing on his aggregated site, BuyIndianAct.org, hoping that whenever any tribes across Indian country are in the market for goods and services, they will look there first.

“All you have to do is log on and sign up. I am not vetting businesses or checking documents, so you are on your honor when you list your business,” he said. And his intent is not to make money off the listings, either. “I have one Google ad on there, and if you click it, I do make some money. Since January, I have made 27 cents.”

So far, 18 businesses are registered on his site, including Buffalo Spirit Nation, owned and operated by David Hoff, a Standing Rock Sioux, and his partner, Jeannine Clark. They sell Hoff’s handmade drums and dream catchers (made by Clark) online and at their store in Las Cruces, New Mexico, along with jewelry and other items.

“The great thing about promoting your business online is all the resourcing and networking. Natives have been doing this before this was even thought of. But it’s not the ultimate solution to marketing,” said Hoff, who has also spent years and a lot of money peddling his products to wholesalers all over the country. However, he recognizes the value of e-tailing and hopes to do more online wholesale distribution starting this month.

While Hoff recognizes the value of BuyIndianAct.org, he wants to be more inclusive with his marketing efforts. “We aren’t involved in just the Native American customer, but also reach out to New Age and metaphysical groups that accept our spiritual beliefs.”

Contributing business writer Lynn Armitage is an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.