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Transforming conflict into holistic solutions

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Until the non-profit agency Native Americans for Community Action (NACA) implemented the Oak Creek Vista Overlook Vendors' Program in 1988, tension between Native arts and crafts merchants and local forest rangers was at a breaking point.

NACA Program Coordinator Dorothy Denetsosie said that in an effort to tap the flourishing Flagstaff-area tourist market, Native vendors began selling goods illegally on Coconino National Forest land. "A lot of them were getting cited or incarcerated ? It got to the point where it was getting way out of hand - altercations, confrontations."

Forest Service officials finally proposed a mutually beneficial agreement. NACA formed the Oak Creek Vista Overlook project and obtained a special-use permit that would allow selling at a popular rest site under the agency's supervision. Hundreds of vendors now sell goods year-round in accordance with the program's organizational guidelines, including strict authenticity requirements in accordance with the federal Arts and Crafts Authenticity Act.

"We want true Native American vendors to be recognized for their talent, and to be able to benefit from that," said NACA CEO Dana Russell. "Foreign business [is] recreating and duplicating Indian work on an assembly-line basis, so it's important we ensure that what's on the market is really authentic."

Although vendors occasionally complain that program requirements are too stringent, Russell is confident that the Overlook Program's overwhelmingly successful collaboration between public and private interests could serve as a model for other communities.

"We have a winning combination that involves not only us and the Forest Service, but the public at large," he said.

"A lot of our vendors are single parents, and some of our vendors are elderly," stated Denetsosie. "Being involved in the program allows them to subsidize their income. For a lot of our women vendors, being able to sell jewelry keeps them off the welfare rolls."

Overlook vendor Lena Yazzie, who specializes in weaving and bead work, said "it's a good place to reach different people. I enjoy meeting tourists from around the world: Africa, Australia, all over the United States."

Not long after the program took hold, NACA officials realized that much more could be done to facilitate greater degrees of long-term economic self-sufficiency among participants.

"One of the things that was staggering to me," said Denetsosie, "was that they were doing this on a daily basis, but still didn't think of themselves as business people. A lot of that is just lack of education."

NACA conceived Project Sih'hsin (Project Hope), a business education program and training initiative for Overlook vendors, and began to seek funding. The program idea caught the attention of Yma Gordon, program officer for Economic Development at the New York-based Ms. Foundation.

"We noticed that NACA made a very deliberate and particular approach, making sure that their services were relevant to that community. As a funder, that makes a difference to us ? and I think that they don't just provide business development - they look at things that connect community lives and business lives," said Gordon.

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After three years of grant assistance from the Ms. Foundation's, 60 female vendors have been able to gain basic entrepreneurial skills at Coconino Community College. Ms. Foundation funding also created opportunity for an annual training conference, which took place this year on Oct. 7. Unlike most other mainstream business events that deal only with dry practicalities and competitive strategies, the Dook'o'sliid Arts and Crafts Conference stems from the holistic NACA philosophy about success.

"We feel that somebody's not all there unless they work on every aspect of their lives: the physical part, the spiritual part, what it takes to be successful in dominant society outside of reservations," said Russell. "All of those things make a difference."

While practical advice was offered for the 268 conference participants, guest speakers and workshop facilitators also emphasized enterprise as a practice that can - and should - be grounded in traditional cultural values.

Vida Khow, a retired RN with an interest in alternative health care, demonstrated a variety of techniques for staying emotionally and physically fit throughout the four seasons. Traditional healer and corporate consultant Daniel Bejar used song, meditation, and a discussion of historical trauma to address the legacy of marginalization and violence imposed upon American Indians.

"There are some people who put on workshops and conferences like this," Bejar said "but not many. It's important. Seeing Indian people in leadership roles is important, and I think across the board, no matter what your culture is, you need to connect with spirit."

Keynote speaker Steve Darden drew on his experiences as a former judge and internationally known Din? spiritual leader to encourage the women present to include cultural values in their business plans.

"Tradition does not mean taking a step backwards," said Darden. "Tradition means that you are able to stand in a place where you have strength. It's a place where you have foundation. It's a place where you have identity ? It is who you are."

One conference participant said later that the last time she'd heard such spiritual words of encouragement was many years ago, from her grandfather.

Elsie, another participant and Overlook Program vendor, stated, "the presentations really open my mind, and they help me upgrade my work, my art, and my thinking about my business."

NACA hopes to propel momentum from their recent micro-business initiatives into even bigger social enterprise ventures in the future. This year, additional funding and expertise offered by the Ms. Foundation allowed NACA organizers to conduct a feasibility analysis for a vendor-owned cooperative retail store and/or art gallery.

"The whole arts and crafts market is still very popular; there's great demand," Russell said. "So it's reasonable that we ? go a step beyond to offer another outlet through which they can be even more successful."

For more information about Native Americans for Community Action, call (928) 526-2968, send an e-mail to, or visit their Web site at