How a Lakota Woodworker Funded His Business: 10 Q’s With Stephan Cheney

Stephan Cheney, a young Lakota entrepreneur of the Kul Wicasa Oyate fromt the Lower Brule, South Dakota, hunts for wood around his Northern California home to make his signature furniture. “I collect a lot of pieces of wood randomly along the way,” says the discerning scavenger. He also has friends and relatives scouting for him. 

Overtime, word has spread within Cheney’s circle of family and friends that he has a gift for making furniture from scrap pieces of wood, even though he had never been trained in that art. “I am self-educated and it all starts with the belief, ‘Yeah, I think I can do that!’” 

Cheney made my first dining table because his Relatives were sitting on the ground when they came over to visit him and his wife. Native Business Magazine spoke with Cheney about how his Relatives helped make High Rez Wood Company a reality.  

READ MORE: Meet Stephan Cheney, Founder of High Rez Wood Company and a Native Business Top 50 Entrepreneur 

1) When you came up with the idea for your business, what were your initial thoughts about how to capitalize it?  

One of our important ceremonies in Lakota epistemology is the Hunkapi, The Making of Relatives. Notice in this example the “R” is capitalized, noting that it carries some significance within the language. It holds some power in these terms. I have been taught that we are all connected. Mitaku Oyasin translates roughly into, “To all of my Relatives.” When this is said, you are acknowledging everyone and everything around you and their own ways of being. You are acknowledging that all Relatives are significant and that we all have a connection to one another. High Rez Wood Company was created making gifts for Relatives, and the main reason it will continue to grow and expand is from the support and backing of those same Relatives. 

2) What difficulties did you encounter with raising capital to start your business?

Initially, I had to get over the invisible barrier I had placed in front of myself saying that my work wasn’t good enough to sell. I would see work online being sold for thousands of dollars and think to myself, maybe one day, but today isn’t that day. 

I have a woodworking brother and mentor who operates his own shop full time. I would go over whenever he asked for help to learn. His shop has everything a woodworker would need to make and create. The problem is that this planer might be $3,000. This drum sander might be around $2,000. This router is $600, and the sander $300. Those numbers are a little discouraging, especially as I am doing work out of a little 7ft by 6ft space which is my laundry room! I down-played my importance and quality of work because it was coming out of such a humble little space. The mentality switch allowed me to think forward about what could work instead of what couldn’t work. I found ways to create the same quality of pieces that would allow me to advance my goals. 

READ MORE: A Former Firefighter Built a Furniture Business From Salvaged Trees

3) Were you aware of any federal or Native American programs to help you finance your business, and did you feel that you had access to them? Did you take advantage of those programs? 

I am not aware of any programs, and for sure do not feel I have access to them. I am looking constantly for those things, but have yet to find one that might benefit the work and help maintain the integrity that goes into each piece.  

4) Were you aware of any programs for Native entrepreneurs available in your community or through your tribe? 

I am not aware of any in this area specifically or back home in Lakota Territory but would be open to any insight folks might have to offer! 

5)  Did you feel like you had the appropriate amount of business and accounting training to provide you with an understanding of how to go about accessing capital? 

I feel I can always use more training in business and accounting. I spend a lot of time researching what works for people and what doesn’t. I analyze trends and try the best that I can to incorporate those things into High Rez Wood Company. The biggest thing for me is finding ways to make the things I make more accessible for everyone.

6)   What avenue(s) did you ultimately use to fund your business, and knowing what you know now, what funding path would you recommend to other aspiring or emerging entrepreneurs?

Ultimately High Rez Wood Company works because of the support of all the Relatives. I think across our communities, this is the difference-maker. 

About a month ago, I had a Relative order a jacket that didn’t fit him. He asked if I wanted it, and in exchange if I could make him a cutting board. Over lunch I was telling him about the progress I was making on the board and how I was really getting pretty quick. I could make a board in about an hour, start to finish. 

A week later he asked if I could join him for Dinner, where he and his Wife asked about investing in High Rez Wood Company. He and his wife shared that they really loved the work and that they just want to see me make things in a bigger way. They asked if I could make them a dining room table in exchange for a jointer. I was blown away by this support and could not believe what had happened. This moment has really solidified my thoughts about our communities. We are capable of so many beautiful things especially when we support and uplift one another in the ways that we can. I would encourage all of the Relatives to seek out those people in your community creating and uplift them in every way you can. 

7) How did the process of raising capital to launch your business empower you as an entrepreneur? 

I believe that it made it all real to me, knowing I can actually do this. It went from dreams to reality just like that. There are many woodworkers out there, yet people were really interested in getting work from me. Now I have work in multiple countries! 

8) How has access to capital changed over the course of operating your business? What additional business strategies have you used to help fund your business? 

With the help of purchasing some equipment, I am able to create things quicker and with precision. I now have few different styles of pieces that I can recreate for the Relatives, such as specific styles of cutting boards, benches and tables. There are more Relatives looking for hidden pieces laying down in the forest and just more information being shared out there about the work through avenues like Native Business Magazine

9) What would your advice be today for entrepreneurs who are just starting to seek funding for their businesses?

I am like you, in that I am only now navigating the ways in which I can expand the funding needed to take High Rez Wood Company to the heights that I envision. My best advice is to remove all the negativity associated with you accomplishing your goals and dreams. Starting first with yourself and the negative barriers you put up to guard yourself. It takes knowing ourselves and believing in ourselves to really grow. This is followed by the support of those people and things you surround yourself with. When there is a wall in front of you, find the way over it. If you need some help, I’ll build you a stool so we can get over it together.

10) What are some of the ways that Indian Country could improve its support for funding emerging entrepreneurs?

I am not sure if I have the answer to this as our communities are so vast and different.