Associated Press
Dennis Smith (center), co-founder of NativeOne, the first Native American-owned member of the New York Stock Exchange, raises his arms in celebration during NYSE closing bell ceremonies in August 2011.

Two First Nations Tribes Pull Up a Seat on Wall Street

Alysa Landry

Two of Canada’s First Nations are breaking the glass ceiling.

The Beardy’s & Okemasis First Nation of Saskatchewan, and the Nibinamik First Nation of Ontario, have purchased shares in NativeOne Financial Holdings LLC, the only Native-owned broker-dealer with a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. The agreement gives the two nations a presence on Wall Street, and an unprecedented voice when it comes to massive mining developments in Canada.

Proposed extractions in Ontario’s Ring of Fire, where deposits of chromium, copper, zinc, platinum, vanadium and gold have been discovered, would impact at least 13 First Nations, including Nibinamik. And Beardy’s & Okemasis is sitting on as much as $5.5 billion in natural resources, said Dennis Smith, co-founder of NativeOne.

Without financial backing or clout, however, indigenous people lack the ability to tap into the industry or influence decisions. “This gives them a lot more leverage,” Smith told ICTMN. “That has not happened on behalf of many First Nations of Canada. They’ve been pushed around, pushed out of the way. Now as owners of a broker-dealer on the NYSE, they can demand a seat at the table and level the playing field.”

Founded in 2009 by Smith and Don Lyons, a member of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, NativeOne aimed to help tribes achieve greater participation in the financial services industry. It joined Wall Street in December 2010 and purchased a seat on the NYSE in August 2011.

Chiefs of the Nibinamik and Beardy’s & Okemasis nations in February signed agreements with NativeOne. They were the first of what Smith hopes will be more than a dozen such agreements among Canada’s First Nations, extending financial capacity and clout to tribes across North America.

“They now own a small piece of NativeOne, so they can go directly to Wall Street to get fair and level financial advice,” Smith said. “Up until now, none of them has been able to get capital to do billion-dollar mining operations.”

The agreement puts the two nations on par with cities and municipalities, which finance construction by issuing bonds, Smith said. A presence on Wall Street gives First Nations control of natural resources, and the power to use industry for development. “Without access to the financial world, every city would be an island unto themselves,” Smith said. “That’s pretty much what happened to the First Nations. They were kept away from the financial industry and taken advantage of because of the resources.”

John Yellowhead, chief of the Nibinamik First Nation, said owning a share of NativeOne opens the door for the tribe to generate revenue and develop corporations while also ensuring that resources are extracted in a way that protects the environment. It also allows Nibinamik to invest in its impoverished communities. “When we look at our communities, they’re very poor,” Yellowhead said. “We need to be proactive, to work together, to alleviate some of the issues that surround us.”

RELATED: Navajo Students Visit NativeOne at the New York Stock Exchange

Increased financial power often leads to political influence, said Rick Gamble, chief of the Beardy’s & Okemasis First Nation. He looks forward to making “bold statements” when it comes to Canada’s future. “There’s a lot of resource development in Canada, and First Nations are continuously pushed aside and never given an opportunity to get involved,” Gamble said. “This offers the opportunity. The doors are open. It’s up to us to decide how we want to move forward.”

But without an economic base, tribes don’t have a voice, Gamble said. “Now that we have the money, we can call the shots,” he said. “We can influence government decisions. When our First Nations capitalize on this it will change the economic world.”

Smith estimates that American Indians in North America control natural resources that are worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

“It’s time they were in control,” he said. “Access to the financial markets can make this happen.”

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