Tourism Supports Economic Development on Crow Reservation

Nov 15th, 1994 | By | Category: 6-3: Philanthropy, Tribal College News

It is well known that tourism supports economies. When people visit, money is spent and businesses are supported.

But at Little Big Horn Community College, tourism’s impact is even more direct. A new program is literally using tourist dollars to finance loans for Indian entrepreneurs.

The Institute for Microbusiness Develop­ment and Tourism at the college has developed a revolving loan fund, some­times known as circle bank­ing, to support small busi­nesses on the reservation. Between $400 and $2,000 is loaned to tribal members starting, or hoping to expand, microenterprises.

The institute is sup­ported by a three-year, $350,000 grant from the Northwest Area Foundation. But the insti­tute is also hoping to underwrite its expenses by offering excursions for tourists to historic sites, including the nearby Little Big Horn Battlefield, and trips down the Big Horn River.

According to institute coordinator David Small, the three top destinations for tourists in Montana are Glacier and Yellowstone Parks, both in the west, and Little Big Horn Battlefield, in the east. However, he says no effort had been made to develop tourism in the battlefield.

“It’s a commodity we haven’t been tapping until now,” says Small.

The tribe is well posi­tioned to offer tours. It is adjacent to the internation­ally famous historic site, and is a destination for tourists in its own right.

Two and four day pack­ages are available. In addi­tion overnight rafting trips on the Big Horn River are offered. The trips are led by tribal members trained as guides and, appropriate­ly, feature traditional cul­ture and present history from an American Indian perspective.

The tourism program helps build understanding between Indians and non- Indians, says Small. “We’ve been around for hundreds of years. They’ll be here for hundreds of years. We’d better learn to get along.”

But when the program began there was concern among some tribal mem­bers. “There was talk at first that we were selling our culture,” says Small. “But that’s not true… We’re not selling culture, we’re selling interest. There’s a difference.” He did stress that the pro­gram does not reveal closely guarded spiritual beliefs or practices.

The first tours were offered last summer. Put together on short notice and relying on local adver­tising only, it offered ten tours to groups of two to 50. This year, the program is expected to grow as they advertise regionally and even internationally. Europeans, especially, show an interest in American Indian culture and are a fre­quent sight on reservations.

But the program is meant to generate dollars along with goodwill. Income from the tours will support the microbusiness program and the small loans offered by the institute.

Small says the circle banking project is based on a model first developed in Bangladesh. An entrepre­neur needing a small loan joins a group of three other entrepreneurs who, in effect, guarantee each other’s loan. Money is loaned to the first member. When it is repaid, the loan is given to the second member. This continues until all loans have been distributed. When all loans have been repaid, the group can request another for a higher amount.

Although these loans often go to people who, by traditional banking stan­dards, is considered bad risks, default rates are typi­cally very low. Peer support and pressure is believed to be the reason for the high repayment rate.

Small says there are currently five circles in operation, supporting businesses as diverse as a roping team, silversmithing, tee shirt silk screening and logging.

As part of the project, loan recipients are expected to develop a business plan, propose a long-range plan for growth and, if necessary, fix a bad credit rating. Together, this will help them be eligible for larger loans from a bank.

Both projects are expected to develop a more active, Indian-con­trolled economy on the reservation. “We have a dependent economy,” says Small. “Most people are employed by the BIA, tribal government, Indian Health Service or a non- Indian-owned business.” He says that while there are about 200 businesses on the reservation, only seven to twelve are Indian-owned.

“We want to change that,” he says. “We want to go from a dependent to an independent economy.”

For more information about the tours available through the institute, call: (406) 638-7211.

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