Nonprofit Aims to Boost Reservation's Economy Through its Native Artists' Work

Four Bands Community Fund

Eagle Butte, South Dakota – Over the next two years, Four Bands Community Fund, a community loan fund and nonprofit organization that primarily serves the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, will implement a project to assist 100 Native Americans in building an art business by providing access to loan capital, equity injections, and professional development training. Participating artists and others will become the centerpiece of a cultural tourism marketing campaign designed to promote Cheyenne River as a destination.

“Four Bands believes that by continuing to support Native artists in developing successful arts businesses we are not only positively impacting our reservation economy, we are also maintaining and strengthening our Native American culture,” says Lakota Mowrer, assistant director of Four Bands.

The overarching strategy of the project, titled “Rediscovering Native Art on Cheyenne River,” is to strengthen the local arts sector in order to effectively market Native art and culture as a tourist attraction and utilize it to drive economic growth on the reservation. “We believe that Cheyenne River offers unparalleled beauty and a rich cultural experience for visitors. A key component of this project is helping our people to embrace that culture and to begin to think of it as an asset,” says Tanya Fiddler, executive director of Four Bands. 

Fiddler has played an integral role in Four Bands’ successful past cultural tourism strategies such as “Native Discovery,” a project launched by Four Bands in 2004 through an unprecedented partnership with the South Dakota Department of Tourism. In its prime, that project attracted at least 4,000 people per month by utilizing a website and various forms of new media to raise awareness of Native art and culture and promote Cheyenne River as a tourist destination. Four Bands’ “Rediscovering Native Art on Cheyenne River” project will build on those past efforts by incorporating additional marketing methods to support its arts, tourism, and culture strategy. Those methods will include a communal art space, two community events showcasing local artists, and a reservation visitor’s guide.

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At more of a grassroots level, Four Bands will provide its core programs and services to individual artists. A recent reservation-wide survey conducted by Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Ventures, an entity responsible for administering a 10-year poverty reduction project, revealed that 78 percent of the survey respondents who participate in a microenterprise were in the arts sector. As part of the project, Four Bands will disperse a total of $70,000 in lending capital, leveraged with equity injections, and paired with intensive one-on-one technical assistance to Native artists. In addition, some of the participants will be able to reach larger regional and national markets with support in e-commerce strategies.

Mowrer says the biggest challenge for most artists on the reservation is that while they are deeply passionate about their art, oftentimes the business side of their art practice is not a priority. She says this “reactive business pattern” causes many artists to sell their pieces well below market value. She says, “We are hoping we can help our Native artists to think more critically about their art as a business, and to provide them with the right resources to showcase their talent to a wider market.”

Four Bands is partnering with the Cheyenne River Chamber of Commerce to mobilize a community arts and tourism networking group, which will facilitate discussions around the challenges and successes with art and tourism businesses, and to strategize on how to promote these sectors within the community and beyond.

Fiddler says the success of the “Rediscovering Native Art on Cheyenne River” project lies in the utilization of Four Bands’ holistic approach to economic development, which doesn’t just focus on one element, but on many things that all complement each other. She explains, “The artists build stronger businesses, which is then a bigger attraction for visitors. Our larger marketing efforts benefit local art and tourism businesses. Participants in the networking group all help each other grow. In the end, we have a population on the reservation that is proud of their culture, and a population off the reservation that respects and appreciates Lakota culture.”

The “Rediscovering Native Art on Cheyenne River” project is funded through multiple sources, including a $200,000 grant award from a joint initiative by the Kresge Foundation and Surdna Foundation dubbed the Catalyzing Culture and Communities through CDFIs (Community Development Financial Institutions), a $30,000 grant award from First Nations Development Institute’s Native Artist Capacity Building Initiative, and a $15,000 grant award from First People’s Fund’s Native Arts Economy-Building Program. Each of these initiatives funded several organizations across the country that focus on integrating arts and culture into community and economic development strategies.

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