Reservation Economic Summit.

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Nation's largest Native business convention held in Las Vegas

By Chris Stearns -- Today correspondent

LAS VEGAS - More than 3,000 American Indian business owners, corporate presidents, CEOs, government officials and exhibitors visited Las Vegas March 12 - 15 for the largest annual Native business convention in the nation.

The annual Reservation Economic Summit is now in its 21st year. According to Ken Robbins, Standing Rock Sioux and president/CEO of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, this year's RES drew its largest turnout ever. Robbins added that he was sure RES exceeded its goal of facilitating more than $1 billion in new business deals among attendees.

Robbins said that this year's main sponsor, the Inter-Tribal Economic Alliance, ''has been a steadfast advocate of the National Center and one that continues to support our principles and unique vision.''

The size and impact of RES 2007 can also be seen in the who's who list of this year's other blue-chip corporate sponsors, including BlackRock Inc., Lockheed Martin, the Native American Contractors Association, Raytheon, Boeing, Hilton Hotels, the Miccosukee Tribe, Northrop Grumman, Washington Mutual, United Brotherhood of Carpenters and UPS.

NCAIED started the annual RES in 1986 as an informal way for American Indian entrepreneurs to meet and discuss the special challenges that Native businesses face in Indian country. Today, that vision has grown into a national forum for tribal businesses such as Chickasaw Nation Enterprises, which sent a delegation of nearly 15 officials to RES.

Speaking for the lead sponsor, ITEA Chairman and CEO Tex Hall called RES ''without question, the biggest and best annual opportunity for Indian country, private enterprise and government agencies to come together and make economic development a reality for Indian country.''

While staffing the Chickasaw's spectacular trade show booth, Patricia Luna, who is senior development manager for Chickasaw Nation Enterprises, praised RES, saying, ''We really think that the annual Reservation Economic Summits are great for doing business and we have been exhibiting here for over five years.''

Another trade show exhibitor, Andy Wells, president of Wells Technology Inc. from Bemidji, Minn., also saw great opportunity at the show. ''As a small Native American manufacturing and industrial distribution business, we have a difficult time gaining visibility at a national level.

''RES 2007 is a great way to network with new people from the government and corporations who want to use Native American suppliers. Plus, we have a chance to tell others about our new Native American apprentice academy for training and employing Native Americans as machinists and industrial occupations.''

Sisters Rebecca Chaffin and Colinda Torrez, both Choctaw and in the paper industry, were also impressed at what they saw. Torrez is the president of Torrez Paper Co. of Dallas, while Chaffin handles sales promotion for industry giant Olmsted-Kirk Paper. Torrez called the summit ''powerful stuff'' and said that she would definitely come back. Torrez said that ''even though my company has a contract with Lockheed Martin, it was only here at RES 2007 that I actually got a face-to-face with my purchaser.''

This year's featured speakers included Steven Preston, administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration; Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. and First Lady Vicki Shirley; Orlando Cabrera, assistant secretary for public and Indian housing in the Department of Housing and Urban Development; and Mark Goldstein, director for physical infrastructure issues in the U.S. Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress.

During the leadoff session of RES, Goldstein highlighted a report that he wrote for Congress on the lack of telephone and Internet service in Indian country. The GAO determined that only 68 percent of American Indian homes have telephone service compared to a national average of 98 percent.

NCAIED also unveiled a new initiative called ''Native eDGE'' which is an economic development internet portal that delivers ''real-time'' market information from the federal government and private sector to help tribal and Indian-owned businesses obtain the most up-to-date and comprehensive list of financial resources available to them at that time. NCAIED introduced four ''beta'' test stations at the convention to give attendees a chance to test the site themselves. Reviews were very positive and NCAIED expects to put the portal online in late spring of this year.

Other highlights of the convention included the presentation of the Youth Entrepreneur of the Year Award to the owners and operators of Lickity Split Chocolate Studio, CEO Andrew Dayish and president Hubert Dayish, who were accompanied by their fellow corporate officers. Later, the Dayish brothers spoke at a panel made up of Native entrepreneurs and told a rapt audience the secrets to making it in the confectionary business. The crowd literally ate their presentation up (Lickety Split passed out complimentary Navajo design lollipops) while commenting on the remarkable fact that Andrew is only 15 and Hubert is just 10.

RES 2008 will take place March 3 - 6, 2008, at the Las Vegas Hilton.