Q&A With Dr. Courtney Lewis, Author of Sovereign Entrepreneurs

“One-industry economies like casinos cannot thrive long-term without small business support,” says Dr. Courtney Lewis (Cherokee Nation), a tenure-track Assistant Professor at the University of South Carolina – Columbia. Her first book, Sovereign Entrepreneurs, Cherokee Small-Business Owners and the Making of Economic Sovereignty, was published in May 2019 by The University of North Carolina Press. (Photo Courtesy The University of North Carolina Press)

Dr. Courtney Lewis Spells Out Why Small Business Owners Empower Reservation Economies, Especially During a Recession, and How Native Nations Can Support Them

An enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation, Dr. Courtney Lewis is a tenure-track Assistant Professor at the University of South Carolina – Columbia. She grew up with her Cherokee father who was an activist academic for American Indians (he was the first American Indian to earn a PhD in Social Work and helped write the Indian Child Welfare Act) and was inspired by her Cherokee grandfather who was a small business owner (Paul’s Top Dog in Muskogee, Oklahoma). While she always knew that she wanted to work on behalf of Native people as an academic, it wasn’t until college that she found an aptitude for economics. 

Lewis earned her PhD at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in the Department of Anthropology, following two degrees in economics from B.A. University of Michigan and M.A. Wayne State University. Her current work focuses on economic development for Native Nations in the United States and, consequently, issues of sovereignty. 

Specifically, her research is focused on small businesses located on the Qualla Boundary of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of North Carolina. Her fieldwork took place during the height of the Great Recession and reveals that small businesses provide a crucial impact on reservation economies, especially during a time of economic crisis.

Her first book, Sovereign Entrepreneurs, Cherokee Small-Business Owners and the Making of Economic Sovereignty, was published in May 2019 by The University of North Carolina Press.

Dr. Lewis spoke with Native Business about key points addressed in Sovereign Entrepreneurs, including the challenges of entrepreneurship on Native lands, the inspiring resilience of Indigenous entrepreneurs, and what Native Nations can do to support their small business owners. 

Native Business: Sovereign Entrepreneurs puts Indigenous entrepreneurialism in a historical context. Why is it important to offer this perspective? 

Lewis: Many people assume that Indigenous entrepreneurs did not exist until recently. But our people had active and thriving trade routes pre-contact, followed by large-scale business relationships with Europeans, and are now currently supporting their community as small business owners on reservations, amongst a multitude of other business endeavors. Acknowledging this continuous history disrupts the idea that Indigenous peoples can’t be entrepreneurs or that they have to be entrepreneurs in the same way as other cultures.

NB: What prompted you to examine the impact of small businesses on reservation economies? And during an economic crisis? 

Lewis: The acknowledgement of American Indian small business owners on reservation in academics was very slim — in fact, this is the first ethnography to focus solely on them. But, it was clear that they not only existed, but were vital parts of reservation economies. This was especially noticeable with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), who had a particularly long history of licensed small business on their reservation — a number that was far above their surrounding (mostly non-Native population) counties. 

I had not planned on being on the EBCI’s Qualla Boundary during the Great Recession, and I was concerned for these businesses when the recession continued to spiral as I did my fieldwork.  But being there during the recession clearly demonstrated just how resilient and experienced these small business owners were. 

NB: How did the small businesses you featured stay afloat during the Great Recession and contribute to their local economy? 

Lewis: The EBCI has many families of small business owners that have been operating various businesses for decades. They have seen and experienced very difficult times in the past and used that knowledge during this recession. The owners drew from a variety of techniques to stay afloat from inventory consolidation and diversifying the business to more extreme actions, such as not pulling a salary for themselves in order to avoid laying off employees. For these businesses, it was more than, “How do I keep this business afloat?,” it was also, “How do I support my people through this difficult time?”

NB: What will Native entrepreneurs who read Sovereign Entrepreneurs learn that they didn’t already know before? 

Lewis: I think that long-standing Native entrepreneurs are very savvy, so they will already be familiar with the overarching themes in this book. But there is a lot to learn specifically from Eastern Band small business owners ranging from the importance of having a Native Nation government that supports small business owners (and how it does that) to how to adjust not only in desperate economic times, but also in times of significant growth, which is a difficulty that many small business owners do not anticipate. 

For new Native entrepreneurs, the book offers a wealth of individual accounts that personalize the experience of being a Native entrepreneur. It gives insights, not just into the mechanics of being an entrepreneur, but also what life is like as a Native entrepreneur — how does this affect your family, your social life, and your expectations of community involvement, for example.

NB: Your book discusses the reciprocal nature of Native-owned small businesses to their sovereign land bases. Can you break this down? 

Lewis: Native-owned small businesses on reservations are constrained in ways that non-Native businesses are not, primarily relating to trust land and citizenship statuses. For land bases, like the Qualla Boundary, it can be difficult and expensive for a small business to access prime land. Even then, they may have to lease the land, adding another hurdle to the difficult process of small business creation. If your Nation has a minimum blood quantum, there may be conflict over how you can pass your business on to future generations, not knowing if they will be able to meet the minimum. And for certain businesses (tourism, art, foods, etc.) choosing how you represent yourself — and your community by proxy — is another factor. Choosing (or not having the choice) to locate on or off of your land base is part of this representational choice.  

NB: How do or can small businesses get involved in and contribute to large, one-industry dominant economies like gaming? 

Lewis: One-industry economies like casinos cannot thrive long-term without small business support. Tourists specifically choose to go to Native Nation-owned casinos because, not only are they on par and exceed what non-Native casinos can offer, but because they are Native Nation-owned. Part of that choice is experiencing that Nation’s culture. Some of this can happen in a casino, but most has to happen on the ground through small businesses. Small businesses also bring in more tourists because there are those who want to go on family trips, but do not want to go to a casino. In these cases, they go with their family, but spend the day experiencing the area instead. Small businesses also extend the stay of tourists, giving them something to do after they are finished with gaming. 

NB: How do Tribes support Native-owned small business — and how can they uplevel their support? Why should they?   

Lewis: There is a wide variety of ways that Native Nation governments can support their small business owners, but these are highly dependent on the Native Nation. One of the most important services a government can provide is training for new and potential small business owners. We have people with fantastic, and much needed, ideas for small businesses, but the lack of knowledge about the daily minutiae of small business ownership, financial commitments, and time involvement can lead to having our citizens in debt and disheartened instead of thriving.  

After that, if the Nation is able, providing start-up and upgrading loans are important. Some reservations do not have banks available and, if they do, it can be difficult if not impossible to secure a small business loan without collateral (especially since trust land cannot be used for collateral). Additionally, governments can offer tax incentives to their citizens for small business ownership. 

Another step is promotion at a government level; featuring small businesses in newspaper articles, promoting them on tourism websites, and creating national brands are a few examples.

Learn more about Dr. Courtney Lewis at drcourtneylewis.com. Sovereign Entrepreneurs can be purchased through uncpress.org, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and most retailers where books are sold.