From the Editor: Advancing the Private Sector, Building Reservation Economies & Equity in Infrastructure

Native Business Executive Editor Carmen Davis (Makah/Chippewa-Cree/Yakama) reflects on what’s happening across Indian Country and why it matters in our weekly “From the Editor.”

Entrepreneurship builds thriving Native ecosystems.

Last week I had the honor of participating in a virtual panel discussion with Indian Country leaders at the invitation of Clara Pratte, Diné, Tribal Engagement Director for Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s campaign. 

READ MORE: Carmen Davis to Speak on Panel, Indian Country Business Leaders for Biden 

As a Native American entrepreneur for 20-plus years, I appreciate the commitment in Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan to equity and public-private investment. During the panel entitled Indian Country Business Leaders for Biden, I spoke to the need for federal support for Indigenous small business growth and removal of barriers to technical assistance for Native American entrepreneurs. 

The truth is, we cannot create robust Tribal economies without Native-owned businesses. Economy means keeping $1 in the community seven times before it leaves. 

Nurturing reservation economies means Tribal dollars go into Native businesses and that money circulates within that community. Cultivating and growing a private sector is an absolute requirement for a sustainable economy. 

Native Business plays a vital role in showcasing Native entrepreneurial success stories, while highlighting their challenges, in hopes that together we can build better opportunities for future generations of Indian Country. In short, we can proactively change the narrative.

As a testament to our mission, Native Business shared wisdom from two Indigenous business owners this week: Douglas Miles, founder of APACHE Skateboards, which has attained cult-status within skater culture and Indian Country, and Melinda Williamson, a a Prairie Band Potawatomi member who founded Morning Light Kombucha and shared her value-rich business advice with our readers.

READ MORE: 10 Questions With Douglas Miles on Self-Capitalizing APACHE Skateboards 

Business Advice Rooted in Values From the Only Native-Owned Kombucha Producer 

I believe that entrepreneurship is among the most challenging and liberating journeys a person can undertake. The beauty of witnessing your hard work, efforts and passion help not only you but other people makes it completely worth it. 

Reservation Economies

Of course, entrepreneurship is only one essential piece of building thriving Native economies. 

Lance Morgan, President and CEO of Ho-Chunk, Inc., is renowned for turning a one-employee business, located in the heart of a vast prairie on the Winnebago Reservation in rural Nebraska, into a world-class Tribal company driving the socio-economic development of the Winnebago people, while boasting annual revenues of roughly $250 million. Established in 1994, the award-winning economic development corporation today employs 1,000 people. 

Morgan took an “outside-in” approach to building up the infrastructure and economy of his Tribal community. Revenue generated off-reservation, largely through government contracting, was leveraged as social and economic capital — “really venture capital,” he said during our virtual panel, “to start businesses on our own reservation.”

READ MORE: Lance Morgan on Leveraging Revenue From Federal Contracts to Bolster Reservation Economies 

“We’ve been able to develop a whole economy on our reservation, using the money that we’ve brought in from government contracts,” Morgan said.

Equity in Infrastructure

Yet it’s hard for many Tribal communities that lack basic infrastructure — from roads to water to housing to broadband — to even begin to talk about economic development and entrepreneurship. 

Infrastructure is the backbone of our economy. 

READ MORE: Carmen Davis Speaks to Entrepreneurship, Infrastructure During Indian Country Business Leaders Panel 

Indian Country is committed to self-sustainability, self-sufficiency and self-determination. But the pursuit of those core values requires access to 21st Century infrastructure. We can’t move forward with our hands tied behind our backs. 

That was another focal point of conversation during the Indian Country Business Leaders for Biden panel — the necessity for the next administration to prioritize infrastructure development and deployment across Indian Country. 

Ultimately, both infrastructure and entrepreneurship empower our capacity to keep hard-earned Native dollars circulating amongst, and benefitting, our people. And let’s start learning from the successful example of others like Lance Morgan at Ho-Chunk, Inc. and begin reinvesting money we earn from one sector into diversifying and starting our own businesses in another sector. If this pandemic has taught us one thing it should be to not put all our economic “eggs” in one sector’s “basket.”

At Native Business, we are committed to continuing to drive the national Native business conversation forward. Together, we can create long-term prosperity and build brighter futures for the next seven generations to come.