Kevin Washburn, assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, speaks at the December 3 launch of the Native American Enterprise Initiative. (Courtesy U.S. Chamber)

U.S. Chamber Launches Initiative to Boost Native American Business

Gale Courey Toensing
12/7/12

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has launched a new project to boost economic development for tribes and tribal businesses.

The Chamber, one of Washington’s most influential advocacy organizations, hosted the inaugural meeting of the Native American Enterprise Initiative (NAEI) on December 3, and dozens of government officials, tribal leaders, business people and legislators attended the kick off.

“We like to say we represent and foster the spirit of enterprise and the spirit of enterprise and entrepreneurship and innovation is thriving and growing in Indian country. Native Americans are a growing part of our country’s economic engine,” Rolf Lundberg, the Chamber’s senior vice president for Congressional and Public Affairs, told the gathering. “As those Native American businesses and start-ups and investments grow they must navigate the same uncertain waters as the Chamber’s other business member companies. Now Native Americans will be able to harness and deploy on their own behalf the Chamber’s instruments of advocacy on legislation and regulatory matters.”

A strong focus will be to oppose “burdensome and onerous regulations,” Lundberg said.

Newly appointed Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, told the gathering he has long been familiar with the Chamber of Commerce because his mother was the first woman president of a local chamber in a small town on the Chickasaw reservation. He said Indian country experiences the same challenges—joblessness and difficulty accessing capital—as other parts of the country. But it also faces some unique regulatory obstacles that the Bureau of Indian Affairs also has been working to reduce, he told Indian Country Today Media Network in an email.

“For example, our leasing regulations make it simpler for leases to be granted on Indian lands. Likewise, the HEARTH Act, which was enacted by Congress and is being implemented by the BIA, converts federal regulatory processes into tribal regulatory process to give Indian tribes greater control over their economic destinies.”

He welcomed the new economic development initiative. “There’s a lot more to do and the administration needs good partners on Capitol Hill,” he said.

A Leadership Council comprised of “major tribes and tribal enterprises” will serve as the NAEI’s governing body. It will develop policy priorities, a legislative agenda and advocacy strategies to deal with Congress and government bodies. The Chamber did not announce the investment level that major tribes will contribute to the initiative, but other “tiers” or memberships will be available at reduced investment levels for tribes that wish to participate. Those tribes will not be involved in setting policy priorities.

The Navajo Nation, an official NAEI member, was represented by its Washington office Executive Director Clara Pratte, who talked about the need to reduce regulatory burdens. “When we reduce regulatory burdens, we succeed. We see an increase in employment and economic development. We see this Initiative as a way to move forward, especially now when we’re dealing with an uncertain federal fiscal climate,” Pratte said. “The Native American Enterprise Initiative goes to the heart of what we feel is sovereignty and self-determination.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) spoke at the NAEI inaugural event. (Courtesy U.S. Chamber)

Pratt said that tribal nations can talk about the federal government’s treaty obligations, “but at the end of the day, those treaties and trust responsibilities don’t write the checks, and the funds provided are often not enough. We need to increase our own private enterprises on our own tribal nations. We need to ensure that our own independent small business owners are not overly burdened with further tribal regulations. This means improving our own internal processes to make the best tax, regulatory and legal environment to create a private enterprise,” Pratte added.

Other attendees included Sen. Lisa Murkowski ( R-Alaska); Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota); Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska); David Emery, a Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe citizen, president and CEO of Black Hills Corporation and Chamber member; Joel West Williams, a Cherokee Nation citizen on the NAEI Leaderships Council; and representatives of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, the Native American Contractors Association, and the United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc.

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