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Suits and Indians mingle in corporate heartland

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DEARBORN, Mich. - Organizers worried for months whether the Indian businessmen would turn out, but at the end of the first annual conference of the Native American Business Alliance (NABA), the issue was how to choose among the tribes clamoring to be hosts for the next one.

The three-day gathering in the glittering Hyatt Regency, across the highway from Ford Motor Co.'s main headquarters, drew some 270 Native entrepreneurs ranging from Mississippi Choctaws to Minnesota Ojibwe.

They met one-on-one with representatives of some of America's largest corporations to seek contracts and partnerships and swap business cards. The networking proceeded with widespread satisfaction, and a few attendees reported landing the big deal.

Dick Wilson, executive director of NABA, reported that Delta Airlines and IBM came looking for joint ventures with tribes with capital to invest and advanced economic development plans. One Indian-owned marketing company landed a contract on the spot, he said. Another young man with a computer operation received an invitation to make a presentation at a corporate headquarters in Atlanta within the following two weeks.

These were the success stories NABA was looking for, he said. "We want to teach individuals and tribes how to network with corporate America, something they're not used to doing. We want to show them how to be aggressive, write letters and phone, to do meetings."

At the same time, NABA wanted to promote tribal culture with corporate America, said Wilson, an Oklahoma Choctaw. Several traditional elders prayed and smudged meeting rooms. One session on Native medicine brought the intensity of sweat lodge prayers to the unlikely setting of a hotel conference room.

The corporate response was enthusiastic, said Caleene Jones Newman, Lumbee, a member of the NABA task force in charge of lining up corporate sponsors. She found companies willing to pay to put their name on straps for ID tags and even on cocktail napkins. "Every spot sold out."

The heart of the conference lay in a morning round of meetings between Indian businessmen, from their own small companies or from tribal enterprises, and procurement teams from major corporations. Ford, General Motors, Daimler/Chrysler, Honda and the like were well represented because of the Motor City setting, but so were Walt Disney, United Parcel Services and United Technologies. The small businessmen had 15 minutes to pitch their products, one-on-one, with the corporate teams, valuable "face time" it might take months to arrange otherwise.

Some participants used the time to seek help with business problems. Many noted how eager the corporations were to find minority contacts. But one of the most striking facts was that Indians sat at both sides of some tables.

Andra Rush, president of NABA, brought in a procurement team from her expedited delivery service Rush Trucking.

David Victor, a business professor at Eastern Michigan University, said Rush, of Six Nations Mohawk descent, has built the largest private Indian-owned company in the country.

Beverly Adams, marketing co-ordinator for the Ontario Native Business Parks Association, passed out slick brochures seeking tenants for the industrial zones of three tribes just north of the border.

The Choctaw-Kaul Distribution Co., a glove and safety product company based in Detroit with sales offices across the country and manufacturing plants in Mississippi, came as part of the corporate world. Although no deal was in the offing, its president, Kenny Tubby, a Mississippi Choctaw, sat down to give advice to Victoria White, director of the fledgling economic development program of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

The lunch and dinner sessions presented speakers ranging from Winona LaDuke, the Harvard-educated Ojibwe activist who is running for vice president on the Green Party ticket, to Baseball Hall of Famer Johnny Bench, part Choctaw, who delighted the elegant dinner crowd with tales from his Oklahoma childhood.

Mary Thomas, former governor of the Gila River Reservation, spoke like a proud grandmother of its new casino-fueled prosperity and announced that although she had recently entered the later stages of diabetes, she would devote her remaining time to a run for the Arizona State Senate.

Some of the most eloquent moments, however, came without words in the introduction of the four founders of NABA - Lloyd Milby and Thomas R. Smith Jr., both Cherokee, Leroy Pepion, Blackfoot and Ken Barnes, Mohawk. They started the group in Dayton, Ohio, just five years ago. As Barnes came to the podium at the conference dinner, he choked with emotion as he looked over the crowded ballroom and then said they never expected it would come so far so fast.