Startup network seeks to encourage intertribal commerce

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WASHINGTON – Seminole Tribe President Richard Bowers Jr. announced the Native American Group Sept. 23, a startup network of tribes that hope to buy and sell among each other, in the process achieving the level of product supply and regular delivery upon which high-volume purchasers rely.

“Our overall goal is economic development for more than 500 tribes,” he said. “We want to spread economic opportunity in Indian country by encouraging more tribes to get into business and by offering more products and services to each other. The consortium offers a ready-made market for tribes with available products or the opportunity to develop them.”

He added afterward that compassion for impoverished tribes was a motivating force behind the consortium. “You’re going to want to help out.”

Paper goods and commercial beef are the initial priorities of the consortium, according to a release distributed at the Sept. 23 announcement, which took place at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Paper goods are in demand for all tribes and produced by a few, among them the Oneida of Wisconsin, manufacturers of the Nature’s Way brand of recycled paper and cotton products, which are on grocery shelves now in limited quantity. Such tribes will be able to expand their production as demand from NAG members grows, the release stated. “Purchases can also be made outside the consortium, if necessary, to allow the tribes to benefit from volume pricing.”

A contact at a call center in Washington state will take orders for paper products and identify sources of supply from participating tribes.

In commercial beef production, the Seminole Tribe is trying to establish a high-quality brand of Seminole beef, Powers said. The tribe has already launched its brand with sales to some of the food service outlets at its Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood.

In describing NAG’s genesis, Bowers related the Seminole experience in beef production – one shared by numerous tribes and individual Indian producers that have goods to offer, but not in the volume or with the regular delivery retailers often require, simply because they can’t risk interruptions in getting their goods to consumers.

“In the beginning, the Seminole Tribe has one of the largest [cattle] herds [in Indian country]. But our herd wasn’t big enough to go to the mainstream. Matter of fact, our herd probably would have been killed in two weeks. And so we needed some help to make sure the brand lasts, and to make sure that the Native American product is not lost through other companies branding their names on it. We want to make sure that the Native American is recognized for the product that they produce.

“And the casinos will buy this from us. And looking and searching all over the country for probably the best cattle in the country, we went to North Dakota. They [tribes] have some of the finest cattle; they have some of the finest grasslands. Not to boast on those – I’m sure if we went to the Southwest, it’d be the same thing.

“And then this way, we could identify that we are the people that produce, the Native American. And we will compete in the market today.”

Bowers credited J. Kurt Luger, executive director of the Great Plains Indian Gaming Association, with steering the NAG member tribes away from the many “shysters” in the free market. Luger took the microphone to say the intertribal trade encouraged by NAG amounts to “a whole new phase of commerce.”

“This is going to be larger than gaming. ... This will be the largest arrow in our economic quiver, and I applaud everybody that’s here today, and many of those in the near future who will be joining this tribal movement.”

Also appearing with Bowers were representatives of the distribution system on which NAG will rely to get its beef to vendors, primarily tribal casinos. Ray Rastelli, president of Rastelli Foods Group in Swedesboro, N.J., said he saw an opportunity to ally his company with a high-quality product, in keeping with its profile within the industry. Cindy Hallberlin, chief ethics, diversity and accountability officer for U.S. Foodservice, a regular business associate of Rastelli Foods Group, said the Chicago-based company has 70 warehouses nationwide, ready to receive processed tribal beef for shipment to local purchasers.

Early participants in the consortium, along with the Seminole and Oneida of Wisconsin, include the Mashantucket Pequot in Connecticut; the Morongo and Kumeyaay in California; Cow Creek Umpqua in Oregon; Rosebud, Standing Rock and Yankton in South Dakota; and the Jamestown S’Klallam and Yakama in Washington state. Several sent representatives and Bowers acknowledged them.

NAG has also enlisted the support of the Interior Department’s Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development. Director Bob Middleton said that under a memorandum of understanding with three “hospitality tribes” in the NAG, IEED is working with tribes to overcome the limited demand for goods and services – along with the resulting limited opportunities for job creation – in the remote locales of Indian country. Modern technology and modern transportation can help to bring the supply of goods and services from tribes to more populous centers of demand instead, he said.