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What kind of message do tribes give to American Indian businesses?

As the co-owners of an American Indian-owned small business, we would like
to ask a question of the tribal councils throughout the country:

If it is the goal of the tribes to diversify their economies, to encourage
individuals to start businesses and to keep tribal monies within the
tribes, why do the tribes make it almost impossible for an American Indian
company to do business with the tribes?

Our question stems from a basic economic fact. The tribe or tribal members
need a product. Question, where do they buy it? An American Indian company
has the product at a competitive price. Answer, use the American Indian
company. You see, it really is a simple solution that benefits all
concerned and fulfills any number of goals set by the tribal councils for
economic growth. But as an American Indian-owned company this simple
economic transaction has become a nightmare of red tape, frustration and
increasing aggravation.

Our company was born from the negative impact NAFTA was beginning to have
on a company that had been in existence for over 25 years. We realized the
only way to remain in business was to diversify and look for new areas to
develop and grow.

This newly-evolved company is, quite literally, the only American
Indian-owned company in the entire United States offering our particular
product line. With this unique distinction, we believed our company had the
potential to grow into a company that would benefit not only ourselves, but
tribes and tribal members alike.

Shortly after establishing our new company we attended the ONABEN (a Native
American Business Network) conference in Portland, Ore. in September 2003.
We heard repeated messages of how tribes were encouraging individual tribal
members to start new businesses. With unquestioning faith in our skill and
product knowledge, we ventured into the unknown territory of building
business relationships with American Indian tribes.

Our journey into developing business relationships with individual tribes
has had one reoccurring theme. If you're a small American Indian-owned
company, go away ... you can't play with the big boys. The major retail
chains and the manufacturers already have an iron grip on tribal purchasing
offices.

Our first introduction into the quagmire of purchasing begins with finding
out who's in charge of housing, who's in charge of the casino, who does the
purchasing. We introduce ourselves, only to be told "Oh, we can't do
business with you unless you've been certified by our TERO office." So we
start the process of becoming TERO certified. (In case you don't know, TERO
stands for Tribal Employment Rights Office and one part of their mandate is
to ensure that a company is majority owned and actively managed by a
registered American Indian.)

To begin with, TERO may or may not be active within a particular tribe. But
for those with an active TERO, each tribe has their own policies and
regulations concerning the application process. One office may not charge
anything for processing and the next one may charge $100. Sometimes the
application is good for a year, sometimes for three years. We have even
been told on two occasions that our application would not even be reviewed
until we purchased a tribal business license and/or BIA traders license.

The actual TERO application is dramatically different from one tribe to the
next. With one it's just a matter of filling out a short form along with
proof of American Indian ownership. With another it means completing a
lengthy application and sending in certified company financials along with
your corporation papers.

Once it's filed, how long does it take to become TERO certified? It has
taken as little as three days to as long as four months and still counting
on one application - which was submitted in March of this year.

OK, now we're TERO certified. We go back to the purchasing office only to
be told we will only be used if we can beat the prices they get from Sears
or Home Depot or Lowe's. There's even an instance where one tribe has a
manufacturer-direct purchasing agreement. Yes, we can sell at our cost,
with no profit, in order to compete with some of the major retailers, but
bid against factories directly? Excuse us, but we decided we wanted to be a
"for profit" company, not a non-profit entity.

One door slams in our face, so we try another. We meet with the purchasing
agent for another department within a tribe that boasts of an active TERO
office. During a part of our presentation we let them know we are TERO
certified with their tribe. Imagine our surprise when the tribal
representative asks us what being TERO certified means. After we explained
to him the purpose of TERO certification, we're told our certification is
meaningless to him. Again we're informed, as before, that unless we can
provide the same or lower prices as the major retailers, we won't be used
... we won't even be considered.

Call us crazy, but we had thought the purpose of being TERO certified was
to be given an equal chance to do business with the tribe. It seems ironic
to us that the tribes which demand TERO certification are the very same
tribes which politely tell us they are not interested in doing business
with American Indian companies.

So we have to ask ourselves, why did we spend all the time and money to
become TERO certified? We really doubt that any of the major retailers were
required to be TERO certified before they could do business with the
tribes. And TERO certification aside, how many major retailers or
manufacturers are owned by American Indians?

And now you might ask, what about the tribes that don't have a TERO? Well,
at least we do business with some of the smaller tribes in our area.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, our
opportunities to do business with these tribes have been based on who knows
who. It's discouraging that the product and pricing we offer has little to
do with the decisions to purchase from our company. On the plus side, once
they have used our company their continued business is based on our
products and service.

Although our business with the tribes has not materialized as we had
anticipated, we still hold on to the slim hope that eventually it will
become the business we visualized.

In light of our experiences over the past year, I challenge all tribal
council members to "walk the talk" and actively support and encourage
American Indian-owned businesses. For if what we have experienced thus far
is a typical scenario for a small American Indian-owned company, we can
well understand why there are so few individuals willing to create a new
life for themselves.

Tom Thayer, Chippewa, and Debra Warren are co-owners of Eagle Feather
Environmental Enterprises, Inc. located in Auburn, Wash. Working with their
consultant Mel Youckton, Chehalis Tribe, they have been in business for a
year offering a full line of household and commercial major kitchen
appliances.