Honoring Nations: Tom Hampson: Native Asset Building

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

ONABEN Executive Director Tom Hampson discusses the resilient entrepreneurial spirit that exists in Indian Country, and how it can be a key to transformative change in Native communities. 

Resource Type

Hampson, Tom. "Native Asset Building." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 17, 2009. Presentation.

"That was really inspiring and educational. How entrepreneurial is that approach? And so it underscores the thing that I've noticed in coming here, which is that there are so many threads that are weaving in and out of the conversations here. And I want to try to capture some of those but first I have to admit that I was a little bit unnerved about coming here. It's a long plane ride -- it's five hours -- gave me plenty of time to work. In fact I was looking through my remarks and Sarah Vermillion Echo Hawk looked and said, 'What, are you writing a book?' And she said, 'You're worse than Mike.' And she was talking about [Mike] Roberts. I said, 'Oh, no. Please don't say that.' [Because] Mike Roberts is deathly afraid of something, which is that both our mothers are from Grant's Pass, Oregon, and he's so scared that we're related somehow. I'm doing genealogical research as we speak to determine if in fact I have something that I can hold over him. I expressed my reservations about what I might say today to Jonathan and he said, 'Oh, just tell stories.' And I said, 'Well, okay, I'll do that.'

So here's a little excerpt from a story that is in our second curriculum, called 'Indianpreneurship: Growing a Business in Indian Country.' It's designed and being beta tested now at Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation and it's designed as a peer mentoring, coaching and educational experience for existing business owners and we are writing the chapters as we speak.

Autumn Rainmaker was the dreamy type. She never planned anything. She just let things happen in her life. She just did what she fancied and let life take care of the rest. 'Being open to the universe,' that's what Autumn called it. Being a free spirit is how her mom described Autumn. Space Cadet, that's her dad. That was before culinary school. Autumn decided on culinary school the way she decided on everything back then. She didn't pick it, it picked her. Autumn had just been dumped by Dallas Brings Yellow. She was walking back to her apartment from school thinking that his name should be Dallas Leaves Yellow when she turned the corner and saw this group of people about her age standing in front of the culinary school having a smoke break. The students were gathered in small groups with their white coats and aprons. They all had tall white chef's hats on and thermometers in their pockets. Autumn liked the hats. A young man named Jeff was standing in the middle of the sidewalk. His curly red hair was sticking out of the sides of the chef's hat. Autumn slowed down to move around him and then she just stopped. She looked up into his piercing blue eyes. Tears began to well up and she tried to hold them back by concentrating on the thermometer in his pocket. She recovered quickly. 'Hi, could I bum a cigarette?' That's how it started and now she was in her third year of being the proud owner of Raindrops Catering. Much has changed in the last three years that Autumn had been totally open to. Jeff didn't last long. He left culinary school to become an electrician with his dad. Autumn was totally okay with that. She quit Jeff on the same day she quit smoking. It wasn't something that she planned to do, it just seemed like the right thing to do, get up in the morning, say goodbye to Jeff and bad breathe and start a business. That was her dream, start a business. It quickly became an obsession.

Now Autumn's dilemma is discussed in the curriculum with a series of questions, and then there's a conclusion at the end of the chapter. We use these stories in our curriculum just as we use -- and you'll notice that I'm doing little 30-second spots here -- that we do in our DVD, which are actual vignettes of real entrepreneurs from reservations in Oregon and Washington, and these are four- and five-minute conversation starters. We created these so that the entrepreneurs could also use them as files to put on YouTube or whatever other marketing devices they have. I may just set that up here. No, it'll fall.

It's an incredible honor to be asked here. It was an incredible honor to be honored by Honoring Nations in 2005 and then to be invited to come to speak to you. It's very special since when I walked in the room I saw lots of good friends, some very old-time colleagues, not old colleagues -- speaking of Antone Minthorn -- and even family. Robin Butterfield is married to, is a first cousin, I'm married to Robin Butterfield's first cousin. That would be my wife. And I see Robin left, you know, family, you can't pick your relatives. But as soon as I walked in the energy and the camaraderie was really, was palpable and I felt immediately comfortable and I think we all owe that to the spirit that Honoring Nations staff and board bring to this event. And I want to thank Megan [Hill] and Amy [Besaw Medford] very much. It's very special. [Because] it doesn't always happen to me when I walk into a room, especially of Indian people.

But I'm struck with the notion of these threads, as I got back in, just the things that we learned today from this panel about the entrepreneurial way that these social enterprises are approaching what they do to serve the community. I also learned that in this group all you have to say is 'shack up' and you get an immediate rise, so I've learned that so I'm trying to find a story that has shacking up in it. I guess I did. Actually I did, didn't I? Some of these concepts that were introduced by the structure of the symposium itself, and then what we've heard since are really quite incredible, the way they weave together. It underscores the importance of gathering together to see how these threads would weave in and out, how they connect and how they divide, how they might be woven together to create a basket or a blanket of ideas we might take from here for our own use.

The metaphor of the blanket reminds me of Pendleton, and Pendleton reminds me of my second, and in many ways, my adopted home, the Umatilla Indian Reservation. And as I flew over that territory yesterday, I was reminded of many things. But this week, this week, I was particularly reminded foremost of the Pendleton Roundup. Antone is laughing as we speak. When I came to the Umatilla Indian Reservation to work as the fourth tribal employee and its first non-Indian, it was 1973. It was not far from the 60s -- protests, Black Panthers, AIM [American Indian Movement], peace and love, and contradiction. It was a time of activism in which many people seeking transformation in themselves, in their institutions, in the world. It was that, with that kind of lens as an activist-oriented person, that I first viewed the Pendleton Roundup. The impressive cowboys and Indians, the Indian encampment next to the rodeo grounds, the Happy Canyon Pageant, which is if you have...How many have seen the Happy Canyon Pageant? It's a Wild West extravaganza with real horses, real cowboys, real Indians, white people dressed up like Chinese coolies tiptoeing like chipmunks with made up buck teeth and squinty eyes. The locals at the rodeo leaving the stands to go to the leather buck room when the Indians came into the arena to dance. The year before -- on the basis of the complaints from the Humane Society -- they had enlarged the pens for the rodeo stock and took the space out of the Indian encampment. The irony of the insult was not lost on the Indians, but they were willing to put up with a lot to be part of the show since its inception in 1910.

There's a very charming story about the founders of the Pendleton Roundup who had invited the tribes from the Umatilla Reservation to participate, Antone's great-grandfather. And there was some doubt as to whether they would show up. Their arrival was announced by looking to the east and seeing a great cloud of dust as the tribes road their horses to the event. As one tribal member opined in the Confederated Umatilla Journal, 'I think about the magical appearance of a large Indian village that was built in one day. From the beginning the Indians liked the idea because it was a place for them to show and compete in roundup events.' Now, not to say that there wasn't a lot of grousing about the roundup. In fact, when I was there, in fact there was even some occasional rebellions and as legend has it, or as Donald Sampson would have you believe, the legend, he and his brother Curtis departed from the script one night and rode a horse back into the arena and routed their enemies reversing the storyline, if only for one glorious, intoxicating and probably intoxicated moment.

Well, many things have changed, including my attitude towards that event. I found myself spending four days, all four days at the Roundup supervising soccer players, selling Cokes and watching my children play in the band and showing off the event in all its Wild West contradictions to visiting friends and families. As Wes Greeley, a pioneer descendent and Roundup board member said, 'For years, the Pendleton economy has driven the tribes. Now it's the complete reversal and turnaround.' He praised in the article the leadership of the Confederated Tribes and admitted it was now the tribes that drive the economy of the county. The Confederated Tribes has been honored here in this forum a number of times. Their successes for their innovations have become economic development legend that we all hope will continue, including joint venturing with Accenture, the casino and the resort, the Umatilla Basin Project which brought fish back to the Umatilla River under Antone's leadership that required a lot of negotiation with non-Indian farmers and ranchers. And so as the years pass -- and this is why I'm belaboring this Roundup story, it's a long event, four days -- and as the years passed, the evidence mounts for what Harvard and Native Nations celebrate as effective tribal government development. I come back to a very uncomfortable truth: that a large part of the Umatilla story at some level has something to do with that damn Roundup. Why? Because if I were to make my own list of what are critical elements to effective tribal government, it would be the number one on that list, would be the extent to which the members and leaders are willing to engage and learn from what organizational development people call boundary spanning but we call walking in two worlds.

The Roundup, near a hundred-year-old institution now, has built traditions and most importantly relationships. Armon Minthorn, board member and religious leader, says, 'It's important that we continue to support the Roundup because we share the same tradition with the people of Pendleton. It doesn't matter what race of people we are; tradition is tradition.' Admittedly, it took money and the acquisition and assertion of sovereignty and power to bring these transformations in behaviors, and notice I say behaviors and not attitudes, but CTUIR [Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation] at Confederated Tribes has reclaimed its position of authority in the region by being effective boundary spanners, negotiators, listeners and watchers. The last 35 years has been quite a rodeo. It has been truly transformational and the changes that I have seen in this time span in tribes all across the country has been an inspirational but also excruciatingly painful. And I think many tribes have entered a new and potentially even more transformative period as we speak, one that has planetary consequences. And believe me, I wrote this before we had Chief Lyons and Manley's comments, but I was so delighted to be affirmed in something, that sometimes I'm accused of being overly optimistic or romantic. Because what I often say is that the future of the planet is in the hands of the Indians, because of the principles common to Indigenous societies that hold the interest of the land, the water and all creatures is generally equal to people's interests.

Native American models for economic development hold great and probably the most promise for long-term sustainability. Indian Country has the unique opportunity to develop new economic forms and systems that combine communitarian value systems with capitalistic competitive forms of commerce. It's truly a transformative time or the potential for this. So what does Indian Country have to do to live up to this awesome responsibility? Well, first of all, tribes and communities don't have to do anything. Since when did such a daunting challenge fall upon those who had so little to do with our planetary fall from grace? And yet, Chief Lyons talked this morning about the challenges that we have faced before us with global warming. And said that it will be up to our generation. Let it not be our generation upon whose watch the world crumbles, or more accurately drowns. We need a lot of help. Global crises require extraterrestrial assistance. Manley Begay challenged us with a question about how do we integrate spirit, the spiritual into the revitalization process. The notion is a very important test of our capacity to be a planetary savior. There are many similar tests we could all pose for measuring effectiveness for this role. How do we educate? How do we treat our elders? How do we treat our fellow species? These are all good tests.

Here's another one and finally to the point of my presentation, how do we reclaim the marketplace in the name of the Indian trading sector? That is, Indian trader sector? How do we treat the entrepreneur? That is a good test for a tribe's potential to write their ticket to the destiny on this destiny train. The entrepreneur is called in private sector, small business owner, citizen-owned business traders, independent scallywags -- call them whatever you like -- they're used to all of it. The entrepreneurs have a very special role to play in Indian Country. They are the bridge from the past to the future. I love the story about talking to modern elders about the notion of living in the pueblo, the notion of going back to go forward. Entrepreneurship was culturally, socially and economically a part of the fabric of the community, inseparable like the first strands woven into the structure of a basket, built to hold roots or berries or dried salmon. If we are ever going to have a world that is in balance again, the entrepreneurs have to play an important part in achieving and keeping that balance.

So how do tribal governments and tribal communities support entrepreneurs in the community, especially the Autumn Rainmakers of the world, will be one of the key tests of how Indian Country will be able to transform ancient and enduring values and visions into viable and sustainable economies. If Indian Country can rebalance things, it can truly save the world. So entrepreneurs, small business owners, traders -- whatever you call them- the orneriest ones that come to council meetings, are pretty important. And it's quite frightening when you think about it that the future of the world might be in the hands of such scallywags. Mike Meyers, my favorite Seneca philosopher, has issued similar challenges for us. In reclaiming the marketplace, he says we must infuse enterprise with spirit, for spirit is the source of all innovation, all creativity, the spirit of enterprise. There is much to be gained. Small businesses, primarily family business, extended families with a basic cultural, social and political units in Indian Country, no matter how problematic they may be. Small business ownership is shown to be a very effective way of accumulating assets. Therefore support and growth of family-owned business strengthens the fabric of the society. Small business owners are the reservoir of what we now call social capital.

As you know, in pre-contact times there were all kinds of clans and systems to create events to support culture, to support the doings of the work of the people. Many of those institutions have been destroyed. We're now seeing in transformational way through the creation of chambers of commerce, the organization of entrepreneurial activity, a renewal of that kind of social capital. Unfortunately, from the entrepreneur's point of view, the focus has been on tribal enterprise, often at the expense of citizen-owned enterprise. There are many good and poor reasons for this. Our job is to help tribal policymakers more informed choices in creating their economic mix. There are many useful distinctions about what is appropriate for enterprising endeavors for tribes and for citizens and the Harvard Project has gone a long way in helping make those distinctions meaningful and outline the choices. But it's clear to me that without a vibrant trader sector we are at risk of being just another economic engine just running on fuel or on fumes, as Manley was talking about, subject to the irrational marketplace hanging by slim margins to competitive advantages that are not necessarily of our own making.

Now I have no quarrel with tribal enterprises. Tribes -- first, last and always -- and tribal enterprises are the critical element in making the transformative changes that have to occur in tribal economies in partnership with the small business sector. The social enterprise sector is another critical element. It's not about profit, it's about entrepreneurial; it's about the spirit of enterprise in all that we do. I think we're entering an incredible, as evidenced by our panelists, incredible era in which we're seeing joint ventures and collaborations with Native and non-Native institutions. The CDFI example was a perfect one or the, I'm sorry, the new market tax credits. Boundary spanning must incorporate reservation and urban populations. We're seeing a trend away from, thank God, the old res/urban Indian dichotomy and one of the boundary spanning activities that is making that bridge a reality is entrepreneurship and the desire for entrepreneurs to go back to their home reservations and to create economic opportunities between the centers. We must get past the old boundaries and collectively build Native assets throughout the territory that can be used in all of Indian Country, keeping the homeland, nurturing and healing and growing it but exporting the spirit of the homeland and importing the capital and using that to develop new forms of tribally controlled capital.

And I'm out of time, so I'll make one other editorial comment about the notion of capital, and Sherry [Salway Black] said it so well, is that the essence is not the nature of capital; it's who is controlling the capital. And it's up to Indian Country to create their own definitions about what capital must look like and act like. It can be human capital, it can be debt capital, social capital, equity capital, non-cash capital, but ultimately it has to be Native capital. And the CDFIs are wonderful things, but they're sort of being promulgated as an intervention institution rather than growing up from the source on the community level. They can be an important tool, but they have to be managed by Natives changing the name of the game. We can only make transformational change with words and ideas that cause us to change our points of view and usually that means by tapping into spirit.

All of these stories that we tell at ONABEN are stories that tell us who we are and what we might gain and what we might lose. We have lots of stories to tell. Maybe some of the stories that will be passed down from generation to generation can be about how our generation saved the planet. We can only hope. And in the spirit of Roundup, let's go forward and 'let her buck.' Thank you."

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ONABEN: A Native American Business and Entrepreneurial Network

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