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.”
Joe Biden’s presidential campaign is investing in diverse coalitions and recently made a significant hire in Clara Pratte, Diné, who will serve as Tribal engagement director. Her work to build bridges between Native voters and the potential next U.S. President sets the stage for a generative future, uniting the prospective Biden Administration and Indian Country, and empowering Tribal Nations and Indigenous peoples as influencers and decision-makers in shaping policy and legislation.
The enterprising founder and CEO of Strongbow Strategies — a multi-disciplinary firm that supports companies in need of IT, cybersecurity, emergency management and more — touts a solid resume of federal, Tribal and entrepreneurial experience, including serving as former Chief of Staff for Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, and prior to the 2013 launch of Strongbow, as national director of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Native American Affairs. She was named a 2019 Native Business Top 50 Entrepreneur, and appeared on Episode 10 of the Native Business Podcast, recorded live at the inaugural Native Business Summit, hosted in May 2019.
Pratte’s appointment was announced late in the election season, just over 100 days until Election Day, so her focus with Biden on linking his campaign and priorities to issues of relevance to Indian Country, while spearheading virtual and digital outreach to Native voters, is moving forward at high velocity. So far, his campaign has articulated a commitment to invest in clean water and broadband deployment across Indian Country, while preserving natural and cultural resources. Pratte is joined by PaaWee Rivera, Pojoaque Pueblo, western coalition director and former Colorado state director for Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, and Matt Dannenberg, Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Wisconsin coalitions director for the Biden campaign.
One cannot overstate the necessity for Native voter turnout in any election, and for Tribal involvement in federal policy decisions. As everyone in Indian Country can attest, upholding Tribal sovereignty and protecting Tribal land and treaty rights is rarely if ever done in mutuality and with good faith. As Native citizens, we have grown accustomed to holding the U.S. government accountable to its agreements, and advocating for Tribal rights, while closely watching for any court cases that could set a precedent and adversely affect Indian Country. It’s a constant amount of energy continuously employed — as the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara (MHA) Nation knows all too well.
The MHA Nation’s property rights to the Missouri River, where it flows through the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, and the minerals beneath it, were transferred to the state of North Dakota by an Interior opinion on May 26th. The move overturned three prior Interior decisions that honored the MHA Nation’s title to Missouri River mineral rights — including reversing a decision that has stood since 1936.
Chairman Mark N. Fox called the Interior decision an “illegal taking of our property rights” and a “breach of the duties DOI owes to the MHA Nation under its trust responsibilities and our Treaties.”
So, the MHA Nation did what it vowed to do to protect its sovereignty and Tribal trust assets — the Tribe sued the federal government on July 15th.
The suit is the latest move in the MHA Nation’s centuries of fighting for its economic, political, cultural and spiritual rights to the Missouri River on Fort Berthold, and the minerals beneath the riverbed. “I’m not gonna be around this earth that long,” Fox acknowledged in an interview with Native Business, “but I’ll tell you what. If it takes 100 years to resolve this, and stick to what we’ve got, then 100 years it shall be.”
The truth is, it all comes back to the land. That’s something Native American Natural Foods (NANF), the maker of the popular TANKA Bar, serves to protect. Launched in 2005 on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, NANF aims to help restore the buffalo economy on Native lands, while providing healthy snacks based on a traditional pemmican recipe.
In a pivotal move, the Native American-owned business has raised its first multi-million-dollar capital investment, backed by the Libra Social Investment Fund, Clearinghouse CDFI and Highlands Associates, with support from Candide Group. “I welcome our investors who have the courage and innovation to break the economic isolation of the reservation and move with us into a new economic future,” said Dawn Sherman, CEO of NANF.
While one Native-owned business is proliferating an authentic, Indigenous brand with a commitment to positive social impact, a wave of corporations and sports teams are evaluating the disrespect and impact of their use of Native slurs and stereotypical imagery to market and sell their products and services.
Mutual of Omaha recently announced it will replace its corporate logo that for 70 years has depicted a Native American chief, and the Edmonton Eskimos, one of nine teams competing in the Canadian Football League (CFL), said it plans to change its name. Naturally the pivots come amid a national reckoning to address issues of racial equity and social justice, and just weeks after Washington’s NFL team announced that it would be changing its name and logo, long considered a racial slur and caricature of Native Americans.
Given that the shift to retire racist mascots and logos is gradually gaining steam, it stands to reason more rebranding announcements will follow.
Corporations and sports franchises exercise colossal influence on society. While diversity and inclusion has long received attention and lip service, the death of George Floyd due to police brutality in Minneapolis has propelled the western world to a tipping point. Behemoth brands are finally reckoning with their racist names, mascots and logos that tokenize and exploit entire races and cultures.
As a fortunate byproduct yet also a painful reminder of the way Native Americans are too often treated as an afterthought or folded into the larger social justice conversations inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement (which we 100% endorse), we are finally witnessing the dismantlement of culturally appropriated Indigenous symbols, images and titles by major companies and sports organizations.
Allow me to put this into perspective. Native Americans, unlike the Black community, face the added burden of perceived invisibility. Just 2% of the U.S. population, or less than 6.6 million people, identify as Native American or Alaska Native, compared to 41.4 million Black/African Americans. And to this day, white people portray Native American people in television and film. Imagine if white people were still dressing up as and imitating who they think Black people are on national platforms today. There would be a horrendous uproar; the world would be aghast. And yet Native Americans are still fighting for this fundamental fair and accurate representation in 2020.
Reclaiming the narrative of how Native Americans are represented and portrayed was part of the impetus for creating Native Business in the first place. Our mission is to move the needle forward for business in Indian Country by sharing blueprints for Tribal economic success, uplifting Native American entrepreneurs, and building bridges to opportunity between Tribes and multinational corporations, funding sources, etc. When Native people build businesses, we demonstrate what modern-day Native American culture and self-sufficiency look like. Native Business, and every other Native American-owned enterprise out there, is rewriting and rewiring societal perception of Indian Country. Finally achieving the takedown of racist slurs as team names and disrespectful depictions of Native Americans as brand symbols and logos is absolutely something to celebrate. It’s a long time coming. But it doesn’t end there. Reclaiming our representation and narrative is a lifelong commitment. And by showing up as the powerful visionaries and businesspeople that we all are, Native people are asserting our worth, self-determining our futures, and reflecting to the world how we will be perceived.
This all goes to say: We are who we’ve been waiting for.