Reservation-based small businesses overcome hurdles


WASHINGTON - The number of American Indian-owned businesses is growing but roadblocks still stand in the way of expansion for many Native communities.

A recent study by the Corporation for Economic Development on the Cheyenne River and Rosebud reservations in South Dakota revealed that businesses must adapt according to cultural, social and economic environments for survival.

The study, ''Native Entrepreneurship in South Dakota, A Deeper Look,'' showed that most entrepreneurs on those two reservations go into business not just to make profits, but to provide a service to the entire community, a cultural norm for the Lakota people.

Economic development through entrepreneurship has been seen by business organizations as a way out of poverty and unemployment. The CFED study found that the majority of people living on those two reservations live at the poverty level, a finding that surprised few people.

Along with that poverty environment, unemployment is high and substandard housing falls in line with the other economic negatives.

The study data show that rural South Dakota is also under stress from the loss of businesses and population, and a healthy economy throughout the state could come from Indian country.

''The potential economic impact of tribes and the Native entrepreneurs on the state's economy is significant,'' the study found.

Research found that entrepreneurship strategies are just emerging and have yet to be coordinated with local communities, the region and the state. The state has resources available; but those resources have not yet reached American Indian entrepreneurs. There is, however, an awareness that the state and the tribes must work together to assist American Indian entrepreneurs, the study suggested.

Unemployment on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation was estimated by the study at 87 percent, while on Rosebud an 80 percent unemployment rate was apparent.

Out of an available workforce of 10,704 on Cheyenne River only 1,300 were employed. On Rosebud the available workforce numbered nearly 12,000, but only 2,300 were employed. The workforce potential included people age 16 and older.

Statistics also show that on Cheyenne River, the total number employed was the same number of people who worked at wages below the poverty level. On Rosebud the differential was approximately 500 workers who received wages above the poverty level.

''The staggering poverty figures reveal that the majority of Native people living on the Cheyenne River and Rosebud Reservations are suffering from some of the highest poverty, unemployment and substandard housing rates across the state and the entire country,'' the study stated.

American Indian entrepreneurship in recent years has been hailed as a means to lift the reservations and people out of the poverty and joblessness stigma that has pervaded the region.

Individually owned businesses on different reservations across the country have to conform to differences in cultures and societies. Rosebud and Navajo are not the same and different approaches must be adhered to, the study found.

And, the definition of an entrepreneur can sometimes be confusing and differ from culture to culture.

''It is not a term or idea in the Lakota language and identity,'' said Albert White Hat Sr., Rosebud Sioux elder and educator at Sinte Gleska University.

Marcella LeBeau a Cheyenne River elder said an entrepreneur was someone who is self-sufficient and adds to the overall.

''We have not yet birthed our first generation of entrepreneurs, but they are coming,'' said Charles Colombe, businessman and former president of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

''We're out there now and need to realize it. Those that are working and struggling now are the parents of those yet to be born,'' he said.

During discussions on the definition of an entrepreneur, the research group heard many community members express uncertainty in defining the work or even identifying themselves and entrepreneurs. Often artists don't look at themselves as business people.

Most people interviewed for this survey agreed that entrepreneurship was essential to the overall economic growth of the reservations, and that tribes were involved in business in the past with the trade era and that entrepreneurship is not foreign to the culture.

A major shift toward development of a vital entrepreneurial economic base has been abated by cultural perceptions, oppression, exploitation and an entire history of misunderstanding of the culture by the non-Indian community, the study found.

''The interviewed expressed a tension in balancing Lakota cultural values and traditions with a western style business identity,'' the study said.

A tribal government employee who was not identified said: ''There's a perception that if you do have something you are becoming a white man, assimilated.''

Another person added: ''In order to have business success, you have to become assimilated to some degree. There's a spiritual tension there.''

Past business practices within the Lakota and other American Indian cultures show that the exchange of goods was not for profit, but for the mutual benefit of all people. Economic educators point out that today's world of entrepreneurship can be accomplished without losing cultural identity.

Getting a business started is difficult when perceptions of failure have to be overcome. The study reported that many common perceptions exits, such as follow through, as some businesses have good start ups but no finish.

Many people questioned whether they could be good entrepreneurs. The belief was based on how they were perceived by non-Indians as ineffective in business management or that they may put forward less initiative. These feelings came from discrimination, low self-esteem and cultural and social misunderstandings between the American Indian and non-Indian cultures, the study reported.

The study offered some suggestions to overcome many of the obstacles, whether real or perceived.

On a local level, a recommendation involved communication with radio and newspapers to provide discussions about the issues that entrepreneurs face and about the societal differences.

The populations of both reservations are predominantly younger and a suggestion was to offer educational initiatives to that age group.

Elder support and advice about culturally appropriate ways of being an entrepreneur was suggested.

On the state level, it was suggested that a dialogue between tribes and the state government take place to increase the trust and relationship-

building. Another suggestion was to develop a database on American Indian-owned companies around the state and increase communication between tribal economic development people and the state.

Another suggestion was to invest in the state's cultural tourism and the American Indian arts market.

The Northwest Area Foundation ordered and paid for the survey conducted by CFED of Washington, D.C. The study is available on the CFED Web site at