Accelerating Native Prosperity Takes All of Us

Feb 15th, 2007 | By | Category: 18-3: Building Prosperity, Editor's Essay
By Tina Deschenie

The growth of Indian business is essential to improve the lives of Native people. It is gratifying to report in this issue about major progress in this area. A 2002 census report indicates there are 201,387 American Indian- and Alaska Native-owned businesses.

In Shiprock, NM, I always stop at Gloria Emerson’s Ahweeh Gohweeh for coffee; her tiny shop competes with and directly faces multi-billion dollar chain outlets: Burger King, KFC, and McDonald’s.  Even on Native land, Native businesses must compete with corporate giants, and they require the support of Native people to survive.

Encouragingly, there is a Native American and/or American Indian Chamber of Commerce in practically every state in the U.S., and many organizations endeavor to support Native small businesses.

A Native American National Bank has been started by investments of $1 million from each of 10 tribes (out of a potential 500+).  Some tribes successfully operate their own credit unions or other lending organizations. A phenomenal number of organizations and programs offer financial management, development, and networking assistance for Native communities, as noted in this issue.

The flourishing of individually or tribally owned Native businesses surely results in part from the educational efforts and modeling of the tribal college movement.  The stories of tribal colleges are great examples of how effective investment of funds and human resources have built centers of tribal higher education while also supporting and developing tribal economies.

Everyone has experienced the galvanizing excitement of new development.  A newly opened retail business or a new building dedication always draws a crowd of consumers or clients.

Often located in rural sites and far from commercial centers, the distinctive, culturally rooted tribal college building can easily become the pride of its community.  The following are just three examples of schools under expansion that are designed with inspiration from the land and people they serve.

While visiting Mahnomen, MN, last summer, my husband and I had to stop at a gas station to ask directions to the local tribal college, and then we drove right by before realizing we were there.

In fact, what appear to be individual stores are actually offices and classrooms of White Earth Tribal and Community College.  A renovated grocery store serves as a main building, with original built-in features (such as a pole and hook used by the butcher to hang meat) still in place.

The latest acquisition is a former beauty shop, “Desired Image.”  A few miles away, near a river and in a beautiful, grassy area, is the site of the future campus, located just 22 miles from the village of White Earth, MN.  The college’s desired image and its determination will likely transform the economics of the entire community.

Up the road is Leech Lake Tribal College. At the time of our visit, the college had just finished the first wing of its thunderbird-shaped building.  Drills and banging hammers resounded next door where a second wing of the building was taking shape.

An art studio with towering ceilings and a massive bank of windows impressively flanks one end of the new building. The “drum room” where the school drum will be housed, is near the center, among classrooms and offices being constructed.  Parts of the college are still located a few miles away in downtown Cass Lake, MN, pending completion of the new facility.

Southwest of the Minnesota colleges, in South Dakota, is Sisseton Wahpeton College (SWC), whose campus is marked by its now famous vocational education building shaped in the form of drummers sitting at a drum.

Decorated with Indian blankets, paintings, artwork, and documents written in Dakotah, the inner rooms and hallways of the college buildings mirror the cultural message of the prominent drum building.

The college bookstore is crammed with star quilts and artwork from the local community in addition to the expected textbooks and classroom supplies.  Inside and out, this college reflects the cultural pride and heritage of the people it serves.

At each site, the college administrators and staff recall meager beginnings and slow but sure growth. They talk of networking, grant writing, and fundraising to realize their vision of providing a quality education in facilities that will make their communities proud.

One administrator acknowledged the complexity of the work, noting that “it is really exhausting keeping up with the day-to-day demands of the college while also writing grants and undertaking capital campaigns.”  Nevertheless, college faculty can proudly point to their graduates as part of the nation’s workforce, many in leadership positions.

The work of economic development in tribal communities is tough enough, but to add college operations to the mix can mean especially challenging work, particularly for the smaller colleges whose limited staff members are expected to wear many hats.  The staff of tribal colleges must also educate others about organizational assets and ownership while still honoring their tribe’s cultural and traditional views.

Many tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) offer courses or programs leading to certificates or 2- or 4-year degrees in business management or business administration.  They also support local entrepreneurship with workshops and resources, and many Native small business owners trace their starts to tribal colleges. Proof of TCUs’ relevance to economic development and community growth are two doctoral dissertations in this issue’s Resource Guide.

Yet, even with the reported growth of various tribal and Indian-owned economies, there is still a ways to go.  Press releases on Indian gaming contributions to various Indian enterprises are received weekly at TCJ, indicating considerable wealth-sharing, which is highly commendable. But only a few tribes participate in or benefit from gaming. The majority of tribes do not. Per capita income and unemployment rates in Native country still lag far behind national averages.

While national business publications report accelerated prosperity among humankind, they also report a growing gap between the rich and poor. Technology and communications have been identified as part of the means for closing the gap.

Fortunately, tribal colleges have been on this pathway for a few years now — upgrading their technology, providing technology education, and improving communications not only on their campuses but throughout their communities.

Far-sighted Native leadership and risk-taking individual Native entrepreneurs will make the difference in the long run.  In fact, we must all help to improve Native prosperity by supporting Native-owned businesses, including tribal colleges.  At TCJ, we are proud that Nakota Designs, Inc., co-owned by Walt and Allison Pourier, is our designer.

It is deeply encouraging to bring you this issue’s articles on the positive economic developments among the TCUs and Indian Country in general.

Tina Deschenie (Diné/Hopi) has been the editor of Tribal College Journal for two issues.  She has over 20 years of experience in American Indian education.

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