Entrepreneurs and tribes open for business
PORTLAND, Ore. - Trading at the river. In the old days Indians in the
Pacific Northwest accomplished that in a very fine manner. As many as 5,000
at a time rode horseback to the Columbia River at the now inundated Celilo
Falls to fish and trade for salmon, catch up with friends and family, and
celebrate life in song, dance and story. Those days might be gone now, but
the idea of a rich, vibrant culture based on a significant trade network
lives on. And at the Oregon Native American Business and Entrepreneurial
Network's recent Trading at the River conference participants sought to
underscore that point.
ONABEN was formed in 1993 with support from the U.S. Small Business
Administration. The idea was that tribes needed to encourage individual
enterprise if a business sector was to develop in Indian country. The
vision was a healthy economy at home in the communities where people live.
Toward that end, ONABEN's October 2004 Portland conference was a gathering
of people interested in promoting Native business. Those within Oregon
attended as well as people from an expanding network in Washington and
California. Both genders were present, and as ONABEN's client roster that
lists 50 percent as female business owners or aspirants suggests, the women
The Trading at the River 2004 agenda included a range of topics from
financing, to youth entrepreneurship programs, to challenges and success
stories. Keynote speakers were filmmaker Chris Eyre, First Nations
Development Institute Vice President of grantmaking, Michael Roberts and
the Commissioner of the HHS Administration for Native Americans, Quanah
Stamps. Via these offerings and more, ONABEN sought to cover the bases
germane to both tribal business and private sector endeavors.
Executive Director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic
Development at the Kennedy School of Government, Andrew Lee, addressed a
plenary session. As many might expect of a representative from the hallowed
halls of Harvard, Lee tackled the whole kit-and-caboodle in a single, solid
Before he launched into his talk, Lee touted his project's Honoring
Nations: Celebrating Excellence in Tribal Government program. "One thing
we've learned at Harvard is that Indian country has the answers and
solutions come from within," Lee said. "Also, data tell us that some of
most innovative things are happening right here in the Northwest. While 14
percent of the applications for recognition under Honoring Nations come
from here, 23 percent of those that win are from this region." Indeed, out
of 16 listed under high honors for 2003 awards five are either single
tribes or consortiums and alliances straight out of the Pacific Northwest.
Lee didn't rest on the laurels too long, though. As his remarks indicated,
much work still needs doing. "The fundamental question we've been
investigating at the Harvard Project for the past 18 years is 'why do some
tribes take off and others stay stuck in the mud?'" While the answer might
seem obvious to some, that tribes over and over continue to make mistakes.
Lee's project has indicated that solutions are not all that
"In the 1980s we looked at poverty on selected reservations and found some
pretty interesting patterns. Specifically we wanted to know if certain
factors were to blame: Endowments of natural resources, access to markets,
educational attainment, acculturation," Lee said. "But, in fact, what
researchers found was that these elements didn't account for the
differences between tribes that were succeeding and those that weren't."
"Rather," Lee continued, "we found that success has a great deal to do with
the approach Indian nations take. Leaders that take a nation-building
approach, or create a long-term environment that's conducive to economic
development are the ones that emerge strongest."
Lee contrasted the nation-building approach with more typical ways tribes
have historically tried to solve problems on reservations. "I'm up for
re-election and I want something done about not having enough jobs or
whatever the problem is right now," Lee parodied. "This typically results
in strings of failure, cynicism about government, wasted resources, and a
brain drain, because it is extremely reactive and not at all strategic."
Conversely, a more sound approach to fostering greater self-determination
in Indian country begins with the same initial problems, but then quickly
moves to "genuine decision making and control over tribal affairs." Lee
pointed out how this approach gives rise to authentic sovereignty,
something he differentiated from defacto sovereignty, or merely lip service
to the idea of empowerment and independence.
"Who's deciding your economic strategy and how clean the water will be and
how the kids will be educated and what the curriculum will be and how many
trees will be cut down this year?" Lee asked. "When the answer is the
Indian Health Service or the Bureau of Indian Affairs, you've got a
That's where organizations like ONABEN and conferences like Trading at the
River come in according to Lee. "No matter what area we're talking about,
when the tribe is in control, it can out perform the federal agencies."
Why? Because for the tribe, the discussion is about home. It's about what's
going on in the neighborhood, right in the backyard. Even when expertise
has not fully matured, strong self-interest on the home front motivates
like nothing else.
Lee moved to a discussion of tribally-owned corporations and
privately-owned businesses run on reservations by either tribal members or
non-Natives. "Tribes like other governments are competing for investors all
the time," Lee said. "And what people want to know is 'can I get something
done 'there?'" This includes tribal members with new college degrees. "When
the tribe's a wreck, and a person just got a new degree, they're going
elsewhere because they don't think they'll have a good chance of their
investment paying off at home."
Lee listed factors investors look for: Tribes need to have rules people can
trust. Fair and independent dispute resolution systems that are genuinely
independent are apart from influence by family or individual power brokers.
Politics needs to be separate from day-to-day business management. And the
tribal bureaucracy needs to be easy to work through.
The take away? "When Indian nations seize control of their own futures and
do so with capable institutions," Lee said, "economic development is a
natural outgrowth. Just look at the Tulalip Tribe in Washington state and
it's Quil Ceda Village. The Tulalips created an infrastructure conducive to
a solid community, and now they have Wal-Mart and Best Buy and are even in
negotiation with an outlet mall. It's really very simple. They built the
infrastructure and now they're beating the pants off surrounding areas and
economic development is booming."
Not everyone lives smack dab in the heart of the Puget Sound population
they way the Tulalips do, but according to Harvard, proximity to markets
does less to determine success than investment in the long term
sustainability of the tribal community. Clearly that's what ONABEN wants to
support. That way no matter where a tribe is located, it can once again
more fully return to participating in trading at the river.