Courtesy U.S. Commerce Department
U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker met with tribal leaders in Michigan at the end of July, and while visiting she toured parts of the Bay Mills Indian Community including the Great Lakes Composites Institute.

Commerce Secretary Pritzker on Leadership, Partnership and Education

Brenda Austin

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker met with Native American leaders and students in Michigan the end of July to discuss how the government can help tribes further empower themselves to create a stronger more vibrant economic future.

Pritzker said the Department actively seeks to partner with Indian country by offering programs aimed at expanding trade and investment, promoting tourism, growing Native-owned businesses, diversifying tribal economies and preparing the next generation for leadership and success through education and training.

The Secretary’s trip included a visit to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where she met with officials from the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and toured the Great Lakes Composites Institute owned by the Bay Mills Indian Community (BMIC) and constructed with funding from the Commerce Department. She also toured Bay Mills Community College where an investment by the Commerce Department in broadband technology has allowed the college to reach students beyond its local community. And while visiting the area she took time to speak with Sault Tribe and BMIC high school and college students about their aspirations and how they felt the federal government could help them reach their goals.

During her busy schedule of listening sessions, activities and meetings, she took 10 minutes to sit down and in an exclusive interview, talk with Indian Country Today Media Network.

What is the goal of your meetings and how many tribes have you visited so far?

I have met with the leadership of four different tribes. The president has asked each department in his administration to engage with tribal leaders to better understand their issues and to work with them to make sure they are aware of the services that we have and can bring to bear. Fortunately for me, I have a terrific Senior Advisor for Native American Affairs Cisco Minthorn, who on a daily basis works with tribes across the country to make sure they are aware of the various services the Department of Commerce has. Those include working with tribal leaders on diversifying their economy or growing their various businesses, promoting tourism or helping the next generation of leaders have the skills they need to be successful in the 21st century. We also help businesses work to expand trade and investment.

Part of my trip has been to talk about what we do and how we can do more together. It was great to talk with the students about their aspirations and the vision they have for themselves; whether it’s to be a veterinarian or a Marine, a photographer for National Geographic, or an animator or lawyer, artist or baker. And talking with them about how they get from where they are today – in high school or in their first years of community college or college – to achieving their dreams. Education and workforce training is really important, we are very focused on skilled workforce training and making sure the skills that young people are getting match the needs of their communities. So it was a really robust conversation with a wide range of folks.

What are some of the economic challenges faced by Native owned businesses?

The businesses and leaders that I talked to were particularly interested in a number of things. First of all, extending fiber optics for several miles in order to make sure that their training facilities are able to bring the best to bear for the folks taking courses. Infrastructure is an issue in every community and certainly one here, particularly as you get more into a rural location.

The second issue was workforce development and making sure that we are providing the right kind of training. Another issue was the availability of capital and making sure businesses can gain access to capital. Of course access to markets all over the world was also an issue of importance.

Then there was quite a bit of interest in the census and making sure that we are getting an accurate count of the population of Native communities. One of the things in our trust responsibility as the federal government certainly begins with making sure that we get the census right, because that is so much of the foundation of funding and support for these communities.

We talked about economic development grants and planning, and I was impressed with the businesslike nature of the leadership of the tribes that I met with, and their focus on really wanting to diversify their economy and thinking of places where the federal government could help bridge a gap.

Is this a good economic environment for Native American’s looking to start a business venture?

I can’t comment on writ large Native American businesses, but what I would say is that the concern that I heard here in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is that they are worried that too much of their economics is dependent on the tourism industry and they want to diversify their economy. So we talked about what we could be doing to help with that, and when you talk with young folks they are talking about all kinds of aspirations and issues. The leadership here would like to see a more diversified economy so that they have confidence they can have self-sufficiency.

Is exporting to other countries something that tribes could benefit from? Are there any tribes to your knowledge who are currently exporting products?

Tribes were very interested in our U.S. Export Assistance Centers, which are entities located in the U.S. and I think we have four here in Michigan. Their job is to help companies that have products they want to export. They can help them figure out where in the world those products are competitive. We also have foreign commercial service officers in about 75 countries around the world that help companies navigate their local economies.

One of the examples of the work we have done with Native stakeholders includes a long-standing memorandum of understanding with the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians to attract tourism and sales from abroad. That would be an example of the kind of role we could play. We could also help companies if they have products they want to export by giving them assistance as to which markets to approach and how to navigate once they are in those markets.

Some of the services available through the Department of Commerce include: The Minority Business Development Agency, which has six business development centers in high Native population areas to spur growth and job creation; The Economic Development Administration, which has provided nearly $48 million in assistance to tribes for infrastructure projects and planning; and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which has delivered about $1 billion in broadband grants to tribes.

The Secretary said the Commerce Department has made a strong commitment to partnering with Native American leaders to help create jobs and opportunities that will promote strong and sustainable economies in Indian country and elsewhere.

For more information, visit the Commerce Department’s Native American Affairs website.

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