Nurturing ‘true genius’ in Native businesses

Mentoring and capital from Eighth Generation allowed Sarah Agaton Howes, Ojibwe, to hire two employees and add as many as a dozen seasonally, to her company Heart Berry. (Photo courtesy of Heart Berry)

Joaqlin Estus

Indian Country entrepreneurs who were already facing big challenges now must navigate a pandemic, recession and social unrest ⁠— but some organizations are offering hope and help

Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Normally this time of year, Sarah Agaton Howes, Ojibwe, would be teaching classes and going from one powwow to the next selling earrings, blankets and other products that incorporate her distinctive floral designs. 

Those sales would carry her through to the holiday season, when her company, Heart Berry, gets a lot of online business.

Now she’s hoping she can hang on till those Christmas sales kick in.

“Right now things are OK, but I know they're nowhere near where they would be if we were traveling and teaching, doing all the things that we would have been doing ... but we’ve got to just keep improvising,” Howes said.

She’s applied for half a dozen loans, but “so far, no luck.”

Howes is among many small-business owners and entrepreneurs in Indian Country who are coping with the pandemic but already faced big challenges, according a webinar hosted this week by Prosperity Now, a nonprofit that works to promote the financial well-being of low- and moderate-income families through advocacy and research.

Mentors and learning opportunities can be scarce, speakers noted, and institutions that distribute funds through investment, grants or loans often leave Indian Country out of the picture.

Michael Roberts, Tlingit, executive director of the First Nations Development Institute, said Indian Country is cut off from physical and technological infrastructure and from financing readily available in other parts of the United States.

“We talk about this all the time at First Nations, especially with regard to the philanthropic investment and Indian capacity building that has been so underinvested in for so long,” Roberts said during the webinar, called “A National Conversation with Indian Country – Asset {Re}Building.”

For example, he said, less than a quarter of 1 percent of philanthropic capital goes into Indian-controlled institutions, for a population that makes up about 2 percent of the U.S. population. He said those low numbers parallel contributions from federal, state, and not-for-profit agencies.

“We can increase that number eight-fold and just get equality, not even equity, right? I always laugh at my White male friends that if I were a White male running a not-for-profit, that $8 million I raised last year would be $64 million,” Roberts said.

For Howes, who started doing beadwork at her kitchen table and “hustling earrings in parking lots” six years ago, it seemed like other businesses could push the right buttons and get “big pots of money” in loans or grants for expansion. She said she lacked role models and mentors to point her in the right direction.

Her “startup funds” were the $800 she received from a court case over federal mismanagement of Indian funds. But her business was limited by how much she could produce working alone.

Then Howes began collaborating with the Eighth Generation Inspired Native Artists project, which is designed to expand the capacity of Native American artists to develop products based on their art.

Now she has a studio and two employees. The past few years, she’s had eight to 10 more during the holiday season.

"To have people actually rely on you for their livelihood, like their rent, especially right now, is really daunting. Cause you're like, ‘I hope we're going to be OK,’ or ‘We'll be OK for this long.’ It's really scary,” Howes said.

Roberts noted downturns hit Indian Country earlier and harder than others. In the 2008-2009 recession, he said, philanthropic funding to Indian Country dropped by 37.5 percent. A fifth of philanthropic funding to Indian Country was gone overnight. Other similar organizations saw a loss of only about 20 percent, he said.

That lack of investment is not due to a lack of Native leadership or good ideas. “There is true genius in Indian Country,” Roberts said.

He said when he worked in venture capital and looked at startup companies and businesses for potential financing by investors, he reviewed hundreds, if not thousands, of business plans. How do those compare with the plans he sees now at First Nations?

“The difference was the number of zeros after the dollar sign that people were asking for. It wasn’t the genius of the social entrepreneur in whom we were investing,” Roberts said. “And so I don't think it's a matter of a lack of capacity in Indian Country. I think it's lack of opportunity.”

One solution speakers recommended is to expand the number of Community Development Financial Institutions, or CDFIs, in Indian Country. These institutions combine federal and private dollars to expand economic opportunities in low-income communities. They provide banking services, grants, and affordable loans as well as training and technical assistance.

There are 70 Community Development Financial Institutions in Indian Country. (Of those 70, by the way, only two qualified for COVID-19 relief funding.)

Tawney Brunsch is executive director of Lakota Funds, a community development financial institution on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. When it started in 1986, there were only two Native American-owned businesses on the reservation, according to its website.

“Eighty-five percent of our clients never had a checking or savings account; 75 percent never had a loan; and 95 percent had no business experience.” Since then, it has deployed more than 1,000 loans, helped establish or expand nearly 600 businesses, and assisted thousands of entrepreneurs."

“It makes you feel good, honestly, seeing how much our community has embraced the credit union and is utilizing the products and services  the savings accounts, the consumer loans, the direct deposit,” and other tools such as direct deposit, checking accounts, and online banking, Brunsch said.

Jackson Brossy, Navajo, executive director of the National Native CDFI Network, said more of the 570 tribal nations in the country should have such financial institutions.

“I'm not advocating that every single tribal nation should have a [community development financial institution]. And there's opportunities for partnership, but between 570 versus 70, I think there's a whole lot more room to grow.”

Inadequate housing, a lack of running water and poor broadband Internet access are also barriers to good health and economic growth, panelists said. Those conditions have existed for many years, but speakers suggested with the public now more alert to social injustice, remedies may be supplied.

Still, the nation faces a pandemic, an economic tsunami, and social and racial unrest.

But, “that's the story of Indian Country for the past 500-plus years, right? This is our lived experience,” said Roberts. “We recently worked on a film with a guy named Sanjay Rawal. And in that film, there was a speaker, Nephi Craig, a chef from White Mountain Apache.

“And I was struck by this quote from Nephi in the film. He said, ‘For Indian people, we are just now emerging from the other side of the [first] apocalypse.’ Right?

“And so I think that when you think about framing it that way, and you look at all that Indian Country has achieved in that emergence, I think there is hope for Indian Country to One: maintain. And Two: [to share] the really neat lessons for the rest of the country on how we emerged from this apocalypse.”

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a longtime Alaska journalist.

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