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SpiritWood: Trust Takes a Long Time to Build and One Second to Break

A column by Tina Hagedorn about Native American tribal-forest business, SpiritWood.

This is the final in a three-part series that discusses the ultimate benefits of branding and marketing tribal forest products. Historically, tribal forest products have generally been sold as commodities with little branding to distinguish or differentiate them from non-tribal products. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.

SpiritWood is an alliance among producers of tribal forest products marketing to retail chain distributors and other potential purchasers in order to improve economic and socioeconomic conditions on reservations. SpiritWood is also a means to provide strategy, expertise and guidance for tribal enterprises to work cooperatively to improve access to domestic and international markets for forest products.

Leadership in any culture is built on trust. Trust establishes and empowers relationships. The success of SpiritWood requires tribal leadership to address trust that has been broken with non-natives and natives alike. Tribal leaders that form the alliance must share a common vision and end-result as tribes and tribal enterprises are often competitors in business. Reciprocal benefits need to be recognized and measured. New relationships must be established and existing relationships strengthened. Full disclosure and transparency are essential to ensure that mutual benefits and risks are understood and thoughtfully considered.

The ultimate benefits from SpiritWood are many and leadership in Indian Country is looking to expand economic opportunity. Tribes understand that it makes sense to work together to invest strategically in anticipation of the following significant benefits.

1. A Strategic Plan to Create Substantial New Economic Opportunity

The marketplace is becoming increasingly aware of the appreciable sum of natural resources under tribal stewardship. There are 566 recognized tribes, many offering abundant cultural and natural resources such as timber, plants, foods, art and medicines. Reservations encompass a total of approximately 56 million acres of trust land and an additional 44 million acres of Alaska native lands. SpiritWood generates revenue from the sale of tribal forest products to retail chain distributors and other purchasers to improve reservation and local economies. Domestic and international businesses are looking to tap into these plentiful native resources and products providing economic opportunity for tribes.

2. A Leadership Team/Marketing Alliance

SpiritWood necessitated the development of a leadership team. Vision, creativity and determination are fundamentals of leadership. Spiritwood also informs mainstream business with knowledge of tribal people, governments, laws and culture.

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3. Change Management – Meeting Market Demand

A commitment to multidisciplinary change and a clear understanding of the benefits to tribes is required to adapt deep-rooted policy to a new strategy of revenue development. For centuries tribal forestry has been directed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and often has not received adequate financial investment for management and marketing compared to private companies with comparable natural resources. Tribal resource management and stewardship have been acknowledged as models of sustainability, but are not currently rewarded in the marketplace. Tribes are the only minority group in America that can sell substantial sustained volumes of forest products from permanent land bases under long-term stewardship and in that way help large retailers satisfy Diversity Vendor/Supplier goals.

4. Development of International Opportunity

The SpiritWood marketing alliance expanded its vision to include global market opportunities. Tribes are evaluating the potential benefits of collectively participating in log, lumber and a wide variety of forest products such as foods and medicinal to export markets. Tribes and the timber industry as a whole are thinking globally to diversify market opportunities. Currently, Asian customers are paying higher prices as compared to domestic markets for some logs. In addition, exporting raw logs instead of finished forest products reduces the need and risk in developing and maintaining costly infrastructure. The ITC and tribal leadership are advancing to the next phase of negotiation to meet market demand generated by large chain retailers and by buyers in Asia. Tribes are working to arrange a trade mission to Asia to establish new relationships and identify opportunities.

5. Improved Socioeconomic Conditions

The ultimate benefit for SpiritWood is to improve socioeconomic conditions on reservations. Depressed markets for forest products have led to the loss of economic and employment opportunities. The housing crisis adds to suffering already being experienced in Indian Country as a result of the current economic downturn. Many tribes with timber and marketable products want to improve their economies by increasing local employment and revenue. Tribes are working to remedy the source of the problem and not just the symptoms. Native American reservations are among the poorest communities in the United States. In 2012 there are reservation communities with unsatisfied basic needs due to lack of economic opportunity. SpiritWood has the capacity to help illuminate and heal problems such as poor housing, chronic unemployment, and inappropriate monetary policy.


SpiritWood continues to advance among tribal leadership while strengthening business relationships worldwide. Several of the tribes that participated in the initial SpiritWood study are working independently to market their own brands to smaller retailers in the U.S. Tribal marketing alliance members are refining their marketing strategy as our economy continues to struggle with high unemployment and low demand for timber products. Leadership continues to adapt to meet the challenges and to establish tribal forest products in the marketplace. SpiritWood, tribes and the ITC are committed to building economic opportunity to revitalize communities and to revitalize an industry devastated by the great recession.

Tina Hagedorn has worked extensively throughout the United States for Native American tribes at Wesley Rickard, Incorporated, where she provides strategy, management, policy and economics consulting. Clients include Indian Tribes, Native Corporations, public agencies, profit companies, nonprofit companies, government and public entities, associations, individuals and other private groups located throughout the United States and in Canada.