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Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: Tribal Entrepreneurs Share Their Success: Individual Ownership Rises On Reservations by Terry Woster


Joni Hertel became a businesswoman out of desperation. She became a business leader out of a desire to help young Native Americans follow her path.

Hertel, who started a day care in Eagle Butte 10 years ago when she was barely 20 years old, recently helped form the American Indian Business Leaders chapter at Cheynne-Eagle Butte High School. She sees it as a way to help young Lakota men and women understand that they can have dreams of business success come true.

"I was 19, pregnant and working one of those $4-an-hour waitressing jobs," Hertel recalls of her decision to start a business. "I was desperate. I needed a better job if I was going to take care of a family. I needed day care for the baby I would have. What did I know about starting a business? Nothing. Not a thing. I knew I had to do something."She took the plunge with a small loan, made it work, bought a house and now acts as a mentor for young reservation-school students who, Hertel said, may not know it but are capable of being entrepreneurs in a culture that has been slow to embrace the concept of private ownership and individual profit.

"I want kids to come out of school believing they can be business leaders and equipped to become those leaders," Hertel said.

Casinos not the answer

Much of Indian Country in the United States is economically depressed, with high unemployment and a shortage of stable industries or housing. Tribal gaming has brought startling prosperity to a few tribes in strategically located parts of the country. Casinos have been less spectacular performers, though, for many tribes, frequently becoming a jobs program rather than an economic engine that spins dollars around the reservation in the traditional seven-times-over multiplier.

People involved in economic development say that is changing, and individual Native American men and women such as Hertel are part of the reason. She shared her story last week during a Four Bands Community Fund "funders' day" event, a day in which the Eagle Butte-based business development group showed its financial backers some of its successes and plans for further growth in Indian enterprises.While U.S. Census Bureau figures from 2002 showed only one-half of 1 percent of business owners were American Indian or native Alaskans, there's increased focus on individual investment and ownership in Indian Country. Last fall, the Bureau of Indian Affairs sponsored an Indian Youth Entrepreneurial Day, an event that was described as bringing together 50,000 students from the 185 BIA schools in the country.

The National Commission on Entrepreneurship, in a June 2002 article, hailed the possible emergence of the Native American entrepreneur.

Noting that only about one-third of tribes are involved in gaming and that most of those operations "are small enterprises with tight restrictions on the types of gaming permitted by state and local governments," the article said a "boomlet" in Native American entrepreneurship is emerging."Many tribes now are viewing new business development as a key economic development strategy," the commission article said. Among the reasons it cited was a new focus on educating Native American youths about individual business ownership.

"Behind the news headlines that are almost exclusively focused on Indian gaming, a major economic transformation is occurring in Indian Country," the commission noted.

Shift to sell success

The transformation means a paradigm shift on many reservations, says Elsie Meeks, executive director of First Nations Oweesta Corporation, which recently received a $2 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to spur growth of private business on the Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River reservations in South Dakota and the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.

"We're all first-generation entrepreneurs," Meeks said during the Four Bands event at Eagle Butte. "In a way, we sold poverty. Tribes sold poverty, because that's how we got our funding."It takes a shift in thinking to sell success, and it can be a painful transition from relying on poverty to get grants and program money to relying on individual economic development to develop a community, tribe and reservation, she said.

"We can only have a better economy than we do now ... by teaching our kids about business and finances," said Meeks, a former Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor who has spent two decades in programs aimed at developing business in Indian Country.

Individual enterprise isn't completely at odds with the traditional community-first culture of the Lakota and other tribes, said John Glover, a Black Hills State University faculty member involved in the Indian Studies program."It isn't that an individual can't succeed, but that the community comes first," Glover said. "It is true that young people in most tribes do need more education and experience in finances and business."

More Native Americans are becoming more comfortable about functioning in two worlds, Glover said."I think more Indian people are saying, 'I can operate a business, I can make a living that's culturally acceptable,' " he said. "They are defining their own life and deciding what they want it to be."

Moving to an entrepreneur spirit on reservations is a long and probably slow process, a "crawl before you walk" approach that involves micro loans, business planning and, often, both technical and emotional support. Four Bands on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation tries to provide all of those things. The Lakota Fund, which Meeks helped start in 1985, has a similar role on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and other tribes in other parts of the country have developed or are developing similar resources.

It's a multi-pronged effort, said Tanya Fiddler, executive director of Four Bands."We need to involve adults. We need to get basic business training out there, and loans out there," Fiddler said.

Sometimes the actual money involved is small - as little as $100 in some of the Four Bands' micro loans. Terry Collins' first loan was about $1,000, enough money to buy tires for a tow truck. Today he and his wife, Janet, own their business, having tapped the Four Bands' fund for expansion money a couple of times.That kind of success becomes an example for young people, Fiddler said. But the future for Indian Country, she said, lies in educating those young people "so they can plan their own economic futures."

Youthful population

On the Cheyenne River reservation, 40 percent of the population is 18 or under, she said. That's not uncommon on South Dakota Indian reservations, where the young make up a considerable and growing part of the total population.

"The young people need to know how to manage their own finances, and they need to know where to find information to help them succeed on their own," said Donna Rae Petersen, cultural programs administrator for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.Hertel agrees. That's why, she said, she is involved in American Indian Business Leaders, to help a new generation of Lakota children know they can own and operate businesses.

"They need to see success," she said. "They need to be taught personal finances, personal responsibility and the basics of business planning. But most of all, they need to believe they can do it."

Two Eagle Butte seniors already are believers, with Hertel's guidance. She worked with Dawn O'Hara and April Bacheman, who managed in the space of a couple of weeks last month to put together a business plan for a magazine they want to start. Their business plan aims the publication at issues important to Indian youths and envisions a market that eventually could span all of Indian Country.The two would-be entrepreneurs won a business-plan competition recently with their idea. Both said they are serious about it, but first, they want to go to college.

"My mother went through the (Four Bands) adult finance program, and that helped me see a little of the philosophy of marketing and business," O'Hara said.Bacheman said a part-time job in the local bank sparked her interest in accounting and business.

"I think I could eventually own a business," she said.

Seth Pearman, an Eagle Butte senior who is weighing a number of scholarship offers from major colleges, said he might someday market his own artwork or products. He's a capable potter, and he showed some of his work at the Four Bands event last Thursday."I think I could market myself if I decided to go that way," Pearman said. "I don't know that I learned directly about business planning, but I know that I've learned where I can find the information I would need to do that. It gives you a feeling of confidence to know that you can find information."

Keri Fischer, an Eagle Butte junior, said she'd be hesitant to try starting a business, but "I want to learn what I can about managing finances. It helps you be independent."A Lakota prophecy talks of the seventh generation that will heal a people torn by sickness and poverty. The Four Bands' event last week was titled "Building for the Seventh Generation." Pearman said he's aware that many people believe that's his generation.

"We are that Seventh Generation, I guess," he said. "I know that in this class, a lot of us are going to college, and a lot of us hope to be successful and to share our success."

Bonnie Lebeau, who grew up on the reservation, is already a modest success with a quilting business, the Rose Room. She got the idea for the business, which takes a designed quilt top and finishes it with backing and stitching, when she and her grandmother were driving to Rapid City to have that work done by a commercial business there."We'd drive out with two or three of our quilts at a time, and one trip, I said to my grandma, 'I think we could do this,' " LeBeau said. "I got a loan from Four Bands, and that's how it started."

Looking back, she wonders at her audacity."I didn't know what our customer base would be, or how much we should charge, or what our time was worth, or any of those things I'd consider today in a business plan," Lebeau said. "I didn't know about credit cards or personal finances, or what a credit report even was. I just knew if we were driving all that way for a service, there were a lot of other people on the reservation who were doing the same thing."

She and her husband are developing a mobile home court, and she says already there are signs that her business spirit is being modeled by her 9-year-old son. He and a couple of friends came to her in the summer to say they wanted to make money. They decided to sell snow cones, using her blender, ice and flavoring.

"It was a Saturday, there was nobody on the street, I didn't think they could possibly make money," Lebeau said. The young entrepreneurs "burned out my blender," but they also made $50 that afternoon."I didn't learn about finances and business when I grew up, and I don't think my parents did from their parents," she said. "I'm going to make sure my son learns those things. It's the chance to have a good life and to be in charge of his life."

This article appears in The Argus Leader. The author may be contacted at twoster@midco.net


Terry Woster

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

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