MARTIN, S.D. - The fledgling Pine Ridge Chamber of Commerce is showing its strength in numbers and if nothing else, in its ability to bring small and large entrepreneurs, from on and off the reservation together to network, exchange ideas and help the reservation's economy grow.
The Chamber recently held their third annual meeting and banquet with a group of people that have helped make changes for the economic future of Pine Ridge. Guests from different parts of the country and various organizations came to show support for the growing organization.
Three years ago, the Chamber of Commerce was an idea in the minds of a handful of people. When it started, 22 members signed up. On April 11, at the annual meeting Mark St. Pierre, executive director, announced the chamber was 110 members strong.
"We can create a strong economy for the future of our children, and we can keep and create new jobs on the reservation. We have experienced some growing pains, but we have a tremendous leadership," St. Pierre said.
The chamber's new president is Loren Bat Pourier, owner of Muddy Creek Oil Company which recently won a lengthy court case over fuel tax illegally imposed by the state on all motor fuels sold on Pine Ridge Reservation and all other reservations. The state with the court's approval and assistance from the South Dakota tribes will distribute the overcharge of tax to all reservation residents. Currently, no plan has been worked out.
"We will work to change the (tribal) government and the (tribal) court system to be friendlier to businesses," Pourier said as he took over as chamber president.
Pine Ridge does not have staggered terms of office for council members or the Oglala Sioux Tribal president. Work is underway to change that to staggered terms in order to establish a more stable governmental atmosphere. This is one of the main goals of the Pine Ridge Chamber of commerce.
Pourier and his wife Patty received an award from the chamber members for their persistence in the lawsuit.
"The state designated funds for roads paid for by taxes collected on the reservation. We thought that wasn't right. We wanted it to be more fair," Patty Pourier said of the lawsuit.
The state did not repair or build any roads on any reservations in the state.
The Oglala Tribal Government is considering imposing the 22-cent per gallon tax on the reservation that will replace the state tax for the purpose of road repair and construction.
"This is the people's victory," Pourier said.
Economic growth on Pine Ridge is entrenched in the quality of employees that work for the private businesses that crop up all over the vast territory of the reservation.
Awards were presented at the annual meeting, and the presentation did more than honor a few people. It showed the quality and capability of the many people on Pine Ridge that were previously stereotyped as poor workers with few skills and little work ethic by neighboring communities.
Tanya Hunter was a prime example. She works for Lakota Express as production manager. Executive Director Karlene Hunter said Tanya had zero experience in production when she started two years ago, but today she is responsible for purchasing $2 million a year in product. Lakota Express is a direct marketing company that also owns a Web site division that manages more than 50 Web sites.
There was more than one employee of the year awards were given to numerous people by their employers for setting an example of hard work and dedication to the economics of the reservation.
Awards to outstanding chamber members included Jesse Claussen of Martin. Claussen owns a construction company and on the side organized a political movement that changed the way the people of Bennett County think. Through his work and the work of others in Bennett County there is a new American Indian sheriff, a new member on the county board of commissioners and a new member on the school board.
"Martin has changed. People learn to sit down and work together. I hope it does change the community," Claussen said.
He said most of the people that turned out to vote or run for elections in Bennett County were not the biggest tax payers, but they were elected "just for their honesty."
Claussen lived in Martin when he was growing up and said it was a good community then. He moved away, developed construction skills and recently moved back to Martin to bring an American Indian-owned construction company to Pine Ridge.
The Fortitude award was given to Larry Swick, who with his wife Betty own Wakpamni Bed and Breakfast on Pine Ridge. Larry was suddenly struck with spinal meningitis and was told that he may never walk again. Larry, with the help of a walker, entered the banquet room to attend the chamber meeting.
People come from all over the world come to Pine Ridge and stay in the many bed and breakfasts available on the reservation.
"One person came to stay with us and stopped the car, got out and looked in every direction and saw no people. That means we have a great selling point. Nothing - nothingness sells," Swick said.
At the end of April an Economic Summit will be held on Pine Ridge with Harvard conducting workshops in governing, constitutional law, tribal law, economic development and various other workshops.