Show me the money: Summit participants assess opportunities

PHOENIX ? Reactions to speeches by Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Assistant Secretary Neil McCaleb were mixed following the packed morning session of the Economic Summit on Emerging Tribal Economies attended by more than 1,500 people.

The summit, widely heralded as President Bush's major initiative to create 100,000 new jobs in Indian country by 2008, was viewed by some as election-year rhetoric while others found hope and encouragement in the keynote addresses.

"I think I heard sincerity in what they were saying," said Sam Jackson of the Kake Corporation in Alaska. "I think they genuinely want to help and are looking for ways to connect people and opportunities. But they were fuzzy on their plan to make it happen."

Hopi Tribal Council member Celistino Youvella said he thought Interior officials were serious about efforts to forge business prospects to help develop new jobs.

"I think the opportunity is there, but it's up to us to take advantage of it."

In contrast, other conference participants voiced skepticism about promises for new jobs in Indian country, given the woeful lack of funding for Indian programs under the Bush administration.

"I don't think they told us anything we don't already know," said Apesanahkwat, Menominee Tribal Council member and former eight-time chairman. "It was typical of this administration to talk about creating jobs, but they had no real plans for tangible projects or funding.

"Budgets for Indian programs are flat-lined ? in some cases zeroed out ? and there are virtually no new initiatives for Indian country. So how are all of these rosy things they talked about going to happen? Talk is not enough," he said. "Show me the money."

Apesanahkwat, a Republican, compared the conference to a recent $5-million publicity campaign launched by the Bush Administration in Los Angeles intended to cure Indians from drug abuse.

"They spent five million dollars on publicity and not one dime on programs to actually treat people. They seem to talk a lot and do nothing."

Creig Marcus, vice president of Emerging Bear Construction and Development in Fresno, Calif. said he calculated the cost of 100,000 new minimum wage jobs to be roughly $1.4 billion. But Interior officials made no mention of firm plans or new funding for Indian country employment initiatives beyond the chance to network and seek opportunities.

"It takes more than talking, especially in areas where tribes lack infrastructure," he said. "Indian country is so far behind in basic roads, services and opportunities that there has to be a substantial financial commitment to back up these goals."

While most people agreed that the conference was a great opportunity for networking and making business contacts, it is critical to follow up the summit by laying solid groundwork for economic development, said Pete Homer, president of the National Indian Business Association based in Washington, D.C.

"Many of our people don't know the process for securing funding that's available for rural development and small businesses. We have to learn the process and get hold of some of that money. There are many resources and tools available for small, disadvantaged minority businesses and it's important for Indian people tap into them," he said.

Homer pointed to a group of 14 Indian manufacturers who sat talking with Defense Department representatives for more than two hours regarding more than $40 million in contracts available to small businesses.

"They're talking about how to tap into millions of dollars that are going to be committed now and we have a good shot at that. It takes this kind of face-to-face discussion to form the kind of relationships that pay off."

Homer said he hopes the new American Indian Small Business Development Act sponsored by Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., will spur the ongoing growth that Indian businesses have enjoyed over the past few years.

"Indian businesses have created 20,000 annually for the last five years and we need to continue that pace to meet the goals for 100,000 jobs. Federal agencies and corporate contractors are here at this summit saying they are ready to do business with Indian businesses and we plan to track that momentum," he said.

"The federal government spends more than $12 billion each year on goods and services, construction and manufacturing. It's long past time for tribes to get their fair share."