Stevens: The return of Indian entrepreneurship

Jack Stevens
3/30/10

America’s newest entrepreneurs are successfully launching products and going after international markets from the least likely of places – remote, hardscrabble Indian reservations.

Indians have been running businesses for a while, but not this kind. Indian casinos have been around for over 20 years, and resource-rich tribes such as Colorado’s Southern Ute, and enterprising ones such as the Winnebago of Nebraska and the Citizen Potawatomi of Oklahoma, operate a range of familiar industries. But now, for the first time, reservation-based Indian entrepreneurs are stalking global markets with distinctly indigenous products.

These reservation-based risk-takers are bringing back a spirit of enterprise that flourished on this continent long before the Pilgrims landed, and they are looking to their own cultures and traditions for inspiration.

Two years ago, Oglala Sioux tribal member Karlene Hunter and Mark Tilsen founded Native American Natural Foods on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation to introduce the Tanka Bar, a dried bison meat and cranberry snack food based on “wasna,” a durable chokecherry and dried bison meat amalgam Lakota warriors carried and ate on horseback during hunts and battles. Today, the Tanka Bar has won accolades in the New York Times and on “Live with Regis and Kelly.”

For the first time, reservation-based Indian entrepreneurs are stalking global markets with distinctly indigenous products.

Sprawling and rugged, Pine Ridge is bordered by the badlands’ otherworldly pinnacles and spires. Its grassy hills etched against a big sky mask a sad history of repression and privation. Site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre, its unemployment rates exceed Great Depression levels and per capita income, according to the last Census, is just $5,619. Yet Hunter chose this place to employ a dozen young tribal members who parlay an edgy, Internet-based, “social networking” strategy to sell nutritious, low-fat, bison-based products at more than 3,000 outlets in 49 states.

The Tanka Bar is the first national brand product to originate from an Indian reservation. But that is not enough for Hunter. She expects to soon penetrate European markets.

Also at Pine Ridge, Henry Red Cloud, great-great-grandson of the eponymous and storied Lakota warrior chief, chartered Lakota Solar Enterprises to manufacture an affordable solar-powered, supplemental, indoor heating device for hard-pressed tribal households whose utility costs often exceed their rents. Red Cloud has so far sold the heaters to families on a dozen reservations, but the product is just as suited to cold-weather, rural households anywhere in the world that seek to wean themselves off propane.

Three years ago, CNN and Fortune Small Business Magazine applauded young Indian entrepreneurs (and sisters) Monica Simeon and Marina TurningRobe for developing a fully automated factory on northeastern Washington’s Spokane Indian Reservation to manufacture Sister Sky bath and beauty products with “indigenous fragrances” such as sweet grass, cedar and sage. Sister Sky is now marketing its line to national hotel chains.

Simeon and TurningRobe bet everything on the notion that they could create demand for the kinds of traditional herbal oils and balms that had relieved the chronic skin problems of one of Simeon’s children.

All these new reservation products are cultural matches, but so is entrepreneurship itself. Markets, trade and importation of raw materials for manufacturing were not concepts brought here by Europeans. Sophisticated Indian trade networks veined the continent long before European contact. During the Hopewellian (200 B.C. – 400 A.D.) and Mississippian (800 A.D. – 1500 A.D.) periods of Native American history, Indians in Illinois, New York and Ohio traded for conch shells from the Gulf of Mexico, obsidian from what is now Yellowstone Park, copper from the Great Lakes, gold and silver from what is now Canada, fossil shark’s teeth from Chesapeake Bay, and mica and crystal from the Appalachians. Southwestern tribes traded in shells, copper bells, and macaws and parrots from what is now Mexico, and turquoise from what is today California. Indians on the Missouri in the Dakotas traded for marine shells from the Pacific and Gulf coasts.

The U.S. government suffocated aboriginal commercial relations by consigning tribes to reservations, either by treaty or at bayonet point.

After the Europeans’ arrival, Ojibwe (not English, Spanish, or French) became the lingua franca of trade up to the 18th century. Great Lakes tribes established portages and elaborate schedules for water-borne transportation of furs and other trade goods. Choctaw-based Mobilian was the language of commerce between tribes and the new settlers on the lower Mississippi and the Gulf Coast. In the Northeast, both the Dutch and English adopted as legal tender the Indians’ wampum, intricately crafted strings of cylindrical beads.

It is likely that the Lakota ancestors of Hunter and Red Cloud traded buffalo meat, hides and horns for food crops at Arikara trading centers along the upper Missouri Valley. The forebears of Simeon and TurningRobe may have bargained at inter-tribal markets along the Columbia River, where Nez Perce, Wishram, Wasco, Wyampam, Chinookian-speaking coastal people, and members of other tribes traded wares.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution acknowledged the substance and scope of these indigenous exchange networks by adopting the Commerce Clause to regulate trade “with the Indian tribes.”

However, the U.S. government suffocated aboriginal commercial relations by consigning tribes to reservations, either by treaty or at bayonet point. The 369 treaties the federal government ratified with tribes between 1778 and 1871 resulted in the Indians losing and the U.S. government acquiring 1.85 billion acres.

Their land base gone, tribes found that reservations were often arid and unsuitable for farming. With the white man’s annihilation of the buffalo, Indians became dependent on the federal government for virtually every material need. What economic freedom had existed was supplanted by an often callous or indifferent paternalism. As the government reduced a proud and vigorous people to economic vassalage, the canard arose among whites that reservation Indians were just not cut out for starting and running their own businesses.

Some federal policies made matters worse by fostering on reservations only wage employment programs – frequently of the “make-work” or seasonal variety – while ignoring personally-empowering self-employment offering indigenous goods and services. Even the federal government at times seemed to have been party to the myth that reservation Indians and entrepreneurship would not mix.

Even the federal government at times seemed to have been party to the myth that reservation Indians and entrepreneurship would not mix.

Fortunately for consumers worldwide, Indians such as Hunter, Red Cloud, Simeon and TurningRobe never bought into this damaging stereotype. Nor has the sputtering national economy slowed them down. Hunter is planning a European marketing foray; Red Cloud wants to manufacture cellulose insulation at Pine Ridge; and the Sister Sky team has started a second business training hospitality workers.

Embracing ancient values and traditions, they are the vanguard of First Americans who have begun to reclaim their legacy as America’s first entrepreneurs.

Attorney and writer Jack Stevens was named the Timothy Wapato Public Advocate of the Year by the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development at RES 2010 in Las Vegas Feb. 23.

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