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Pine Ridge revival: Entrepreneurs lead the way

PINE RIDGE, S.D. ? To take a risk and start or expand a business on the Pine Ridge Reservation takes more than the desire for profit ? it takes a commitment to help the community.

Dondee Kralikowski wanted to provide a service to the community of Wanblee while creating an income for her family. Jesse Clausen wanted to train employees and provide construction skills for people on the reservation while helping workers earn a living.

Clausen returned to the reservation four years ago from Denver and used his own money to start up a construction business. He has been able to employ 20 people regularly. They learn construction skills while Clausen encourages the virtues of sobriety. Some of his employees are working hard to go alcohol-free, he said.

Clausen grew up on Pine Ridge in a family where work was instilled in the children, yet he said, he turned to alcohol as a youth because the peer pressure was so great. He said he saw many of his cousins grow up with alcoholic parents who slept late and had no work commitment.

Although Clausen learned his construction skills in Colorado, he said his life turned around when he spent some time in jail, "I came back to be closer to mom and my relatives and the people I grew up with. Here there are lower crime rates, a slower pace of life than Denver. Rush hour and life was hectic and there was high stress, which I never did like.

"In the big city you had half-a-dozen friends and that's small compared to the friends I have here. I went to bars a lot, got into fights, because all my buddies drank. I was charged with involuntary manslaughter, spent time in jail and I felt remorse so I developed a spiritual program. Now I want to help train workers and help others better their lives.

"There is a problem on the reservation with a lack of skills and education, a lot of negatives go on and on," Clausen said.

He said many people in their 30s never had a job before, and now they have cars and a better home life. The turnover rate of employees is high for Clausen. He said to get 20 employees he went through 63 workers.

"I'm committed to economic development on Pine Ridge. Growth must come from the private sector. Government doesn't make a difference. Government programs are set up to fail."

With the small businesses starting up, he said, a person can see the difference in the reservation. "You now see some nice homes with well kept yards and see some decent vehicles." Clausen said.

Kralikowski, from the Amiotte family on Pine Ridge, spent her youth as a ranch kid where she learned the need for hard work and was exposed to a life where people helped each other.

Her husband ranches and also works in the Long Creek grocery store in Wanblee. Her children are learning the value of work when they help out in the store. Kralikowski and her family and partners worked hard for the past seven years to see the store double in size and become a grocery store with a deli and full line of groceries and household items.

Kralikowski did not go far from home to take over the Long Creek Store. The family ranch is just down the road.

"I'm proud to call this my home town. I love the people of this community. We are honest, don't cheat people or rip them off, we treat people with respect," she said.

Long Creek store has 17 regular employees, most of whom started working for the first time. She tells the story of one employee who stole from the store and quit. The former employee also had a child at the age of 15. A year later the employee called Kralikowski and apologized, and is back to work at the store.

"That makes it all worth it," she said.

Kralikowski nearly gave it up a few years back. With three young children and the burdens of a growing business, the stress was taking its toll, but she made it through. With the help of family and trusted and well-trained employees the store grew. A valuable service the Long Creek Store provides is check cashing. Before, Wanblee residents would have to travel up to 40 miles for that service.

Doubling the size of the building was a major commitment. Financing came from the Lakota Fund, which provides small and larger loans for businesses. In the beginning, Kralikowski said she had to rely on her family's good credit and relationship with banks off the reservation, because the Lakota Fund did not loan large enough amounts.

In any business, people learn as they go; Kralikowski is no different. She said being a perfectionist is hard to overcome and to delegate responsibility or work to someone else was difficult, but she learned she couldn't do it all. Now employees are given more responsibility.

"A problem is that some young people have no consequences to bad behavior. For people who work for us life is better. We took risks, that's what we are here for," she said. "They don't come to work for three days and when they do return they say, 'well I'm here today. I won't put up with that, it is hard. The schools let some youth come to school late without consequences. We take the hard line to fix the problem, few people like it."

But, as she scrolls through the lists the problems, Kralikowski also adds that the situation is getting better and it's because of the private sector enterprises.

Like Kralikowski, Clausen sees the merit in training and employing young people and those who had little opportunity to provide for families or improve their own conditions.

There is a lot of construction on the Pine Ridge Reservation, just in the schools alone. There are seven BIA schools on Pine Ridge that all need repair; government contracts guarantee payment. That helps Clausen Construction grow and employ more people when federal funds are available.

"Some of (President George W.) Bush's tax cuts got in the way of reservation business. We lost money across the board. But, so far I have never run out of work," Clausen said. He said the tax cuts meant having to cut program funding from budgets.

His future plans are to establish a lumberyard where materials can be purchased on the reservation rather than buying materials from off-reservation businesses that do not contribute to reservation life.

"With my own business it may justify a lumber yard. I spent one-half million dollars last year on material. To put an inventory together means a large expense."

This last spring he took on another business that created more jobs in sand and gravel. In the past, sand and gravel had to be hauled from long distances with outside companies getting the revenue without hiring reservation employees.

"Now we have two batch plants that will be a nice profitable side business and create new jobs. Construction will always be here. Companies off the reservation bring in high salaried employees and hire low salaried tribal members. Construction is the largest business on the reservation. I intend to keep it on the reservation and help the economy grow," Clausen said.