By Levi Rickert
Doing business in Indian Country is sometimes difficult to navigate, especially when American Indian history and culture are ignored.
During pre-Columbian contact, the indigenous peoples of this continent maintained their own systems of production and commerce. I learned this as a young adult when I learned about the unearthing of a couple of Indian mounds that pre-date Jesus Christ’s walk on earth. In the early 1960s, during an archeological dig performed by the University of Michigan, several seashells that originated in the Gulf of Mexico were unearthed at the Norton Mounds along the Grand River near Grand Rapids, Michigan, my hometown. Our former city historian told me this is evidence some trading took place between the southern tribes and northern tribes.
Much of the pre-Columbian contact commerce among tribes is shared in “American Indian Business: Principles & Practices,” a new book released in September 2017 and published by the University of Washington Press. There are two chapters devoted to the description of the various complex trade and barter alliances that provided for the different needs of indigenous peoples before European contact. This is an important factor to understand when you realize the bartering systems did not meet the capitalism concept of profit. Throughout history, American Indians have maintained a stance of community versus individual gain.
“American Indian Business: Principles & Practices” is the result of an effort by American Indian scholars who examine various aspects of doing business in Indian Country, such as: economic sustainability, self-determination, and sovereignty; organization and management; marketing; leadership; human resources management; American Indian business law; business ethics and other important business-related topics.
The editors of the book are enrolled tribal citizens and business scholars specializing in management, finance, and business law. Editors of “American Indian Business: Principles & Practices” include: Deanna M. Kennedy (Cherokee); Amy Klemm Verbos (Pokagon Band of Potawatomi); Daniel Stewart (Spokane Tribe); Joseph Scott Gladstone (Blackfeet and a Nez Perce descendent) and Gavin Clarkson (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma).
Even with business booming in Indian Country, there are still challenges for American Indian businesses according to the book’s editors. During the period between 2007 to 2012, the number of American Indian- and Alaska Native-owned businesses rose 15.2 percent. In comparison, the rate of all other United States businesses grew just 2 percent. However, American Indian owned businesses were at the lowest level per capita for any racial/ethnic group in the country.
While there has been success with the growth of business among American Indian tribes, there remains severe economic disparity in Indian Country. Faced with high levels of unemployment and poverty, gaps remain in parity of tribal nations in with non-Native people.
“Indian Country is America’s domestic emerging market, and as in other emerging markets, many successful businesses in Indian Country are starving for expansion capital, while other businesses cannot even obtain startup capital,” writes Gavin Clarkson, in a chapter entitled, “Tribal, Finance and Economic Development.” In July, Clarkson was named the deputy assistant secretary for policy and economic development – Indian Affairs within the U.S. Department of the Interior – Indian Affairs.The lack of capital does not simply apply to tribes or tribal organizations. Too often, individual tribal entrepreneurs lack the background, resources and collateral to obtain business loans.
Clarkson argues there is economic leakage in Indian Country. He maintains that too much money leaves tribal economies versus other communities. He says when $1 million is invested in most communities, it generates approximately $10 million in cash flow. Sadly, when $1 million is invested in Indian Country, it typically generates only $1 million in cash flow. Indian Country is the most underbanked territory of the United States.
He further elaborates on how border towns, near Indian reservations, profit from tribal members who spend money at Walmarts that are obviously not built on reservations. For instance, the economic leakage from the Navajo Indian Reservation allows for the “largest Walmart on the planet, in terms of dollar sales per square foot” to collect cash flow.It is located in a nearby town, Gallup, New Mexico.
“American Indian Business: Principles & Practices” is a good read for those who want to familiarize themselves of how American Indian businesses should be operated and it should be a must-read for all incoming tribal council members, economic development corporations board members and staff.
The volume is so well done that is can be used by higher education institutions to acquaint students on how to better understand doing business in Indian Country. ♦