‘Sovereign Entrepreneurs’ Book Excerpt: Inside the Experience of Native Small Business Owners

Sovereign Entrepreneurs by Dr. Courtney Lewis challenges the established conceptions of entrepreneurship and Indigenous peoples as business owners. (Photo by Dr. Courtney Lewis)

At its heart, Sovereign Entrepreneurs by Dr. Courtney Lewis (Cherokee Nation) tells the provocative story of astute and experienced American Indian small-business owners through the personal experiences of contemporary Eastern Band citizens located on the Qualla Boundary (the reservation homeland of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians).

Native Business recently interviewed Dr. Lewis, a tenure-track Assistant Professor at the University of South Carolina – Columbia, about her book, honing in one why small business owners empower reservation economies, especially during a recession, and how Native Nations can support them.

Sovereign Entrepreneurs, Cherokee Small-Business Owners and the Making of Economic Sovereignty, was published in May 2019 by The University of North Carolina Press. The book is available for purchase from UNCPress.org and wherever books are sold. 

The Introduction to Sovereign Entrepreneurs by Dr. Courtney Lewis is below: 

The night was so cold that every breath cut into my lungs. I hustled across the parking lot, through a heavy snow flurry that signaled the very real possibility of a power outage for the weekend. Entering the crowded café (Tribal Grounds Coffee, the only coffeehouse in Cherokee, North Carolina, at that time), I shook off the snow and was immediately enveloped by the warm aroma of coffee and pastries. I had braved the weather that Friday to attend a Cherokee-language class led by a local high school student who had been working at the new children’s Cherokee-language-immersion academy. He had his sights set on teaching at a college someday. This gathering was his first foray into formally teaching adults, though he had coached beginners, including me, for years.

I skimmed the café’s menu, written in both English and Cherokee syllabary, and ordered an indigenously grown coffee. The beans were hand roasted by then-owner Natalie, an Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (Eastern Band) citizen.1 While I waited for my order, I chatted with Natalie about an open-mic night for locals that was planned for the following evening. I picked up my coffee and clung to it until my fingers regained warmth, then went into the room set aside for community events and meetings. The walls were covered with bright oil paintings created by a young contemporary Cherokee artist (primarily a wood sculptor), Joshua L. Adams. One piece that particularly struck me features the words “Learn or Die” above “ᏣᏬᏂᎯᏍᏗ Tsawonihisdi” in white block letters on a black background taking up two-thirds of the right-hand side; the left third is colorful, depicting a blue face with long black hair on a bright yellow background, overlooking the same syllabary laid out vertically in a graffiti style. This installment was, in the artist’s words, “An attempt to establish an appealing relevance to the youth of the Eastern Band of Cherokee.… Our community must evolve. We must save that which makes us Cherokee.”

A diverse group of students was already waiting for class to begin: one was a neighboring high school teacher who wanted to make the Cherokee language available to her students; another was a coffeehouse employee and Eastern Band citizen who was given the night off to attend class; and a third was a retired woman, also Eastern Band, who wanted to become conversational in Cherokee so she could speak with her grandchild in the new language-immersion academy. “Osiyo! Osigwotsu? Osda, nihinaha?” (ᎣᏏᏲ! ᎣᏏᏉᏧ? ᎣᏍᏓ, ᏂᎯᎾ Ꭽ?) could be heard throughout the coffeehouse in a repetitive chorus during our first meeting, which covered basic conversational greetings. While I sat down with everyone to practice, I considered how American Indian small businesses like this one—so vital for the economy and the exchange of language, art, and food—had yet to be fully centered in contemporary anthropological research and how much these dynamic enterprises can contribute to our understanding of political economy. As this book will show, one of the most important strengths of small businesses that feeds this vitality is their collective diversity, found even in the midst of a (currently) one-industry-dominant economy.

Each reservation small-business owner specifically creates their business in response to their community, market, and personal interests, resulting in an enormous amount of variation across reservations. Small businesses also reach across the spectrum of Native Nation economic statuses, providing clear benefits in economic stability and growth for a wide variety of communities. Furthermore, owners’ actions resonate beyond the economic, including participating in a range of community support activities, involvement in cultural reclamation efforts, and even shaping representations of their Native Nation. However, American Indians who want to start a small private business face unique obstacles in addition to the overall challenges of small-business ownership and, possibly, rural small-business ownership.

“One-industry economies like casinos cannot thrive long-term without small business support,” Dr. Courtney Lewis told Native Business. Read Native Business’ Q&A With Dr. Courtney Lewis. (Photo Courtesy UNC Press)

This book unpacks the layers of small-business complications specific to Native Nations and American Indian business owners while speaking to larger theoretical questions regarding the impact of small businesses in a global indigenous context. Debates regarding measures of autonomy, land status, economic identity, fluctuating relationships with settler-colonial society, and the growth of neoliberalism (along with its accompanying “structural adjustment” policies) meet with specific practices, such as the implementation of guaranteed annual incomes, cultural revitalization actions, environmental justice movements, and the potentially precarious choices of economic development—issues that are exacerbated during times of economic crisis.

It was by chance that my work on the Qualla Boundary was able to chronicle the shifting challenges small-business owners faced during the Great Recession, documenting the means by which these critical components of our worldwide economy survive as they buttress themselves against economic shocks. The contiguous core of my fieldwork took place over fourteen months of participant observation in 2009–10 (just after the initial economic crash), not including previous travels as well as subsequent years of return through the present. However, the impetus for my research topic emerged much earlier, from my own experiences as a small-business owner beginning in 2002 and as a Cherokee Nation (Oklahoma) citizen who was inspired by my Cherokee grandparents’ small business in Muskogee, Oklahoma (Paul’s Top Dog).

During this turbulent time on the Qualla Boundary, my research became focused on the innovative expressions of self-determination exercised by Eastern Band citizens through their small-business sector as well as this sector’s delicate relationship with the EBCI’s tourism industry and related gaming enterprises. This demonstration of indigenous agency through the lens of economic self-determination shows the ways in which small businesses help reduce economic precarity, thereby supporting their community’s long-term economic stability. This subsequently explains how the EBCI and its citizens are able to contribute to a strengthening of their overall sovereignty through actions of what I term economic sovereignty.

This focus expands on much of the recent economic work done in American Indian studies. The 1987 founding of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development galvanized a new wave of scholars from diverse disciplines to conduct comprehensive investigations into reservation economies. However, nearly all of this work has focused exclusively on large Native Nation–owned and operated businesses, such as factories and casinos. This book provides the research for a more complete understanding of Native Nation economies by detailing the crucial impact small businesses can have on reservations as they diversify, stimulate, and help sustain the robustness of their Native Nation’s economy. I assert, as others have, that encouraging the diversity of small businesses can help support a Native Nation’s long-term economic stability, but I demonstrate this uniquely through the eyes of the small-business owners themselves along with an in-depth examination of their local, national, and international contexts. In doing so, this work also addresses the ways in which Native Nations, by supporting small businesses, are responding in politically and socioeconomically meaningful ways to settler-colonial economic subjugations. Until now, lack of information about these small businesses has had a cascade effect, hindering our understanding of American Indian people as entrepreneurs and small-business owners and, thus, our overall understanding of reservation economies, which then narrows our understanding of sovereignty. I expand this knowledge by revealing how the boundaries within which Native Nations and American Indians must work—land, legal, and representational—affect these small businesses; how these boundaries are transformed; and how these transformations can truly alter the landscape of a Native Nation economically, politically, and sometimes even physically.

At its heart, Sovereign Entrepreneurs tells the provocative story of astute and experienced American Indian small-business owners through the personal experiences of contemporary Eastern Band citizens located on the Qualla Boundary (the reservation homeland of the EBCI, also known as “the Boundary”), challenging established conceptions of entrepreneurship and indigenous peoples as business owners. This work follows the difficulties and the support networks that these “Indianpreneurs” and “Entreprenatives” encounter in their quest to remain successfully stable. Their individual stories highlight the contextual distinctiveness and complexities of American Indian small-business owners. These include issues of American Indian citizenship and land ownership, including how these intersect with intergenerational business ownership. There are also the influences of Native Nation governments, which include the government’s financial and business motivations as well as the support mechanisms they can offer to small-business owners located within, and even beyond, their jurisdictions.

Native Nation governments are increasingly turning their attention toward small businesses to bolster the ongoing and essential pursuit of economic stability. The issue of economic stability is inextricably linked with contestations over economic development (especially in the case of one-industry economies), the weathering of economic shocks, and the practices of economic sovereignty. As is the case for the EBCI’s gaming and tourism success, a one-industry-dominant market may create wealth and economic power for a Native Nation, but it can simultaneously cause concern in terms of its inherent vulnerabilities. With or without the one-industry problem, the ability to weather economic shocks, like the Great Recession, is also of primary importance in the pursuit of sustainable economic stability. Consequently, it is this foundational issue of stability that helps to more broadly establish the importance of including small businesses in our discussions of Native Nation and indigenous sovereignty via the concept of economic sovereignty. However, while my central premise informs these larger discussions by arguing that the collective actions of small businesses reinforce indigenous economies and sovereignty, the foundation of all these broader topics remains the individual small-business owners who help empower these changes.

Cherokee by Design — Charla Crowe (Photo by Dr. Courtney Lewis)

Many of these subjects coalesced while visiting two businesses on one afternoon midway through my fieldwork on the Qualla Boundary; both of these businesses, Cherokee by Design and Tribal Grounds, would experience many unexpected transformations in the following two years. In addition to attending occasional evening language classes at Tribal Grounds, I enjoyed stopping there in the afternoons, along with many others—the line to order was often several customers deep. As a regular, I had decided on that particular month to slowly work my way through the coffee menu, trying one new item each visit. On this day, I decided on a house-special cappuccino called the ᏎᏉᏯ, or “the Sequoyah,” so named after the famed creator of the Cherokee syllabary (as well as a distant relative of mine). Normally I would have lingered after picking up my order to chat with folks there, but today I took my drink to go and eagerly drove off. I weaved my way onto the crowded four-lane road in Cherokee’s Cultural District to go visit Charla and Zena—Eastern Band citizens—at their store, Cherokee by Design. Their business began in 2007 as a small section of hand-painted ceramics in Charla’s dad’s nearby store, which was across the street and mere steps from the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel (known as “Cherokee Casino” or “the casino”). This familial arrangement of business integration and “incubating” before a separate launch is not unusual, as family-owned businesses in Cherokee are common. Frequently, the children of business owners start their own businesses using the legacy of knowledge, physical location, on-the-ground experience, and occasionally even capital to bolster the success of their own endeavors. Eventually, Charla and her business partner, Zena, were able to move into a vacant store space, also owned by Charla’s dad. This location was farther down the main road and one street away from the Cherokee Casino entrance, though the lack of sidewalks severely reduced the number of walk-in customers from the casino.

For most of the Cherokee Casino’s history, this area, even with its lack of sidewalks, would still have been a prime location in which to situate a small store, as most tourists would need to pass by it in order to park at the casino or to take a drive through the famous Great Smoky Mountains to Maggie Valley. The casino’s overall impact on small businesses has been varied, though, with some tourist-oriented business owners relishing the increased numbers of visitors attracted to the Qualla Boundary (3.6 million in 2011). But other small businesses, such as hotels and restaurants, have been forced to compete with the casino, which has premium amenities and is the only location on the Qualla Boundary at the time of this writing that can legally sell beer, wine, and liquor. Although Cherokee by Design was not directly in competition with the casino, the casino’s newest phase of construction came at a price for the small store.

As I continued down Highway 19 toward the shop, my drive became a crawl—cars gridlocked, waiting to turn left into the casino’s main entrance. At that time there was no traffic light in place to accommodate the steady stream of tourists coming from the now two-lane road. After finally passing the casino entrance, there was an eruption of noise and dust from jackhammers and heavy earth-moving machinery. On my left was the massive skeletal structure of a parking deck and a gaping hole beneath it; on my right was a temporary parking area in a field reserved for the construction workers. It was here that you could, if you looked hard enough, see a tidy sign, barely larger than the size of a piece of paper and nearly completely obscured by construction workers’ trucks, that read “Cherokee by Design.” Following the sign’s arrow, I turned right down the paved but dirt-covered road and found a very small building tucked away from the highway (and, luckily, away from the rolling dust clouds), with a manicured lawn and garden. Inside, the store was no bigger than ten feet wide. Zena sat at a small table, carefully hand-painting ceramics, while Charla was nearly hidden in a curtained-off space in the back, barely wide enough for her computer and some supplies. Charla’s difficulty in finding an appropriate space to lease for her business is unfortunately a typical problem for small-business owners on the Qualla Boundary who need a physical space in which to operate. Cherokee’s mountain location puts accessible land at a premium, keeping leasing prices high and affordable vacancies rare.

Charla and Zena each had backgrounds in small-business ownership before this venture. Charla’s family is famous for their Bigmeat pottery, and Zena owned a landscape design company. Both have easygoing personalities, laughing at themselves as they work long hours crafting their products, researching new designs, and taking orders from locals for the upcoming holidays. By 2009, Charla had won a Minority Enterprise Development Week Award, after working with the EBCI’s Sequoyah Fund (an independent EBCI office offering business lending and training services) to prepare her business plan and taking the signature Indianpreneurship course, also offered through the EBCI government. These programs were popular throughout the Qualla Boundary, and many business owners I spoke with had used these government-sponsored services to bolster their own businesses.

Cherokee by Design was lined with shelves and packed with one of the most impressive arrays of unique and contemporary items found on the Qualla Boundary, including handmade and hand-painted ceramics covered in Eastern Band and Cherokee-specific designs, such as the Road to Soco basket-weave pattern, as well as the Cherokee language in phonetic and syllabary. A variety of non-ceramic items (iPhone skins, clocks, jewelry, wallets) were also covered with these patterns. All of Cherokee by Design’s products, including the ceramics, are made with daily use in mind, as opposed to many of the Native-made and Eastern Band–made pottery-as-strictly-high-art items found in the upscale galleries around Cherokee. From the beginning, Charla and Zena’s products were proof that these ceramics could also be contemporary pieces that anyone, especially Cherokee citizens, could own and use every day. This need was readily apparent, as Cherokee by Design quickly became a local favorite on the Qualla Boundary. Eastern Band citizens, as well as other businesses in the area that commission bulk orders, come back time and again to Charla and Zena because they sell products that are modern, inexpensive, and expressive in aspects of Eastern Band culture, especially in emphasizing the proliferation of the written language. As we discussed the choice of designs and products, Zena explained, “It just depends on what people’s tastes are, because people want to preserve, and people always want a part of, the Cherokee culture. I’m flattered by that. I’m really flattered that people like our native culture, but at the same time, I’m more proud that … Charlie came up with this idea. Man, she’s preserving. She’s preserving our language, our heritage.”

Sovereign Entrepreneurs, Cherokee Small-Business Owners and the Making of Economic Sovereignty, was published in May 2019 by The University of North Carolina Press. The book is available for purchase from UNCPress.org and wherever books are sold.