Native Nation Building TV: "Promoting Tribal Citizen Entrepreneurs"

Native Nations Institute

Guests Joan Timeche and Elsie Meeks examine the pivotal role that citizen entrepreneurs can play in a Native nation's overarching effort to achieve sustainable community and economic development. It looks at the many different ways that Native nation governments actively and passively hinder citizen entrepreneurship, and the innovative approaches some Native nations are taking to cultivate citizen-owned businesses.

Resource Type

Native Nations Institute. "Promoting Tribal Citizen Entrepreneurs" (Episode 5). Native Nation Building television/radio series. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, The University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. 2006. Television program.

Mary Kim Titla: "Welcome to Native Nation Building. I'm your host Mary Kim Titla. Contemporary Native nations face many daunting challenges including building effective governments, developing strong economies, solving difficult social problems and balancing cultural integrity and change. Native Nation Building explores these complex challenges and the ways Native nations are working to overcome them as they seek to make community and economic development a reality. Don't miss Native Nation Building next."

Mary Kim Titla: "Often when the subject of economic development in Native communities comes up, people think first of businesses owned and operated by Native Nations themselves. But there is another important economic force at work on reservations: businesses owned and operated by Native entrepreneurs. Today's program examines the state of citizen entrepreneurship across Indian Country, including some common obstacles standing in the way of small businesses, as well as the importance of creating an environment for success. With me today to discuss small business development in Native communities are Elsie Meeks and Joan Timeche. Elsie Meeks, an enrolled citizen of the Oglala Lakota Tribe is Executive Director of First Nations Oweesta Corporation, a subsidiary of First Nations Development Institute. She also serves as Chair of the Lakota Fund, a small business development loan fund on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Joan Timeche, a citizen of the Hopi Tribe, is Assistant Director of the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management and Policy at the University of Arizona. She also serves as a board member with the Tohono O'odham Economic Development Authority and the Hopi Tribe's Economic Development Corporation. Welcome and thanks for being with us today. Can you first talk about citizen entrepreneurship and what that really means?"

Elsie Meeks: "Currently, a lot of tribes themselves, the tribal government actually starts a business and runs it whereas in this case individual members of the tribe start their own businesses."

Mary Kim Titla: "And can you give some examples of that?"

Joan Timeche: "They range from very small to very large types of businesses. They are often what we call the underground economy that exists, the tailgaters, the people who sell food. These are people who are selling firewood, making tamales, all the way to the storefronts where you actually have a building, you have...maybe it's a gas station, maybe a video store, which is very common in rural, small communities. To ones -- as we're seeing our tribal economies become a little bit more sophisticated -- we're seeing things like individual owners, individual citizens who are building hotels and the bigger kinds of businesses that you find common...that are common in more of the metro areas."

Mary Kim Titla: "Really, this term 'entrepreneur' is something that we talk about today, but it really existed even before there were reservations. Can you explain that?"

Elsie Meeks: "Yeah, 'entrepreneur' is, for me, a term that means survival, that people figure out ways to survive. And we were always survivors, and we always made use of opportunities that were at hand. And today, that means we start our own businesses to figure out how we become self-sufficient. And so I think that really the concept -- we always were entrepreneurial-spirited. We may not have understood the principles of a formal business, but that's just the next step."

Mary Kim Titla: "So it's part of our traditions. But Joan, you say that, when we were talking earlier, that really this idea isn't common in all tribes."

Joan Timeche: "Yeah, I think the culture pays a lot of attention to whether or not an individual can be successful and whether it's acceptable within communities. There are cultures where it's more common, more acceptable for a community, and an individual maybe can't perhaps rise and although they may be a contributing member to the overall survival of the Nation or of that community, maybe perhaps it's not acceptable for him to go off and become -- in today's modern terms -- to become that business owner and accumulate personal wealth. So I think that plays a big difference. I believe that Elsie and I both come from communities and cultures where individual success is celebrated, we're taught to be self-sustaining members of the community. Across my reservation on Hopi, you'll see a lot of artisans, we have a lot of people who if they don't have a storefront, they have a portion of their living room that's dedicated to selling arts and crafts or whatever it may be that they're making. It varies across, but I know that there are tribes where that's not often the case, where they look to the chief, to the chair, to the government to be able to provide that kind of assistance and the services back out into the community. So I think culture plays a big role in determining whether entrepreneurship might be acceptable within a community."

Elsie Meeks: "But I think also -- culture aside -- I think some tribes have thought that economic development meant that they started their own business, and a lot of them haven't been successful even, and what's happened then is individuals have to find some way to make a living, so of course they start doing things like making and selling arts and crafts or selling goods or providing services. And so there is sometimes a tension between the tribe doing their business and the entrepreneur, and I can think of a lot of examples of where both have been done."

Mary Kim Titla: "What about just how critical these businesses are to helping their own communities thrive economically?"

Joan Timeche: "Well, for one thing, they provide a service or they can provide a product that is in demand at the local level. Another thing that they do -- which I think is very critical along the lines that Elsie was talking about -- is that it's no longer just the tribe that's doing the development. It also involves a greater number of people, because if you live in large communities like from where we both come from on expansive reservations, you know numbers count from one end of the reservation to the other, so it does that -- helps to keep the money on the reservation because as we all know...I think here in Arizona 80 cents of every dollar goes off the reservation. And so it's helping to keep that dollar to stay within the community."

Elsie Meeks: "Well, in particular at Pine Ridge, because we're very remote, and in truth the tribe has not done a good job at managing businesses...Businesses in my experience can't be run from a political viewpoint. They have to be run as a business. And I think we found that out in the Soviet Union. The whole economy failed because of the government being the one that ran the businesses. And so at Pine Ridge, really not one single [tribally owned] business has succeeded except the casino, and so individuals are the ones that are starting this tire repair shop or grocery store. Instead, before we were running a hundred miles to Rapid City and so it was very not efficient, it really got into our pocketbooks having to go outside. And so as you create one business and then another then you're keeping that flow of dollars in the community."

Joan Timeche: "And I think one other thing that we should probably add is that when tribes get into economic development, they're looking at job creation, jobs and dollars staying within the community, and this is what small businesses are good at, even if it's just a mom-and-pop store that's employing the husband and the wife -- that's two more jobs that have been created outside of federal dollars coming into the tribal government, transfer dollars. So I think that's the biggest asset to having a private sector within a reservation is the jobs that it can create over the long term."

Elsie Meeks: "Yeah, but I think there's also one other issue there that when the tribe creates a business and their main objective is to provide employment, we always hear our tribe at least saying, 'We have to do something to get jobs going.' You can provide a low-income job to an individual, but what does that really teach them? It may teach them how to work or whatever, but when you allow someone to get into business and manage their own business and reap the consequences for good decisions and for bad decisions, it teaches something about management and leadership and decision-making that just providing a low income job, which is what most of these businesses the tribes start do, that it really allows...I've seen people change completely at Pine Ridge when they had this ability to manage their own business, and that to me is the real key and the real reason why I believe that individual entrepreneurship, citizen entrepreneurship is the most important development tool we have at Pine Ridge."

Mary Kim Titla: "It's part of the American dream, right? Be your own boss, work for yourself and work hard at it. And of course, there's this whole learning process involved, and what we're talking about what's going on at Pine Ridge, this whole, in recent years anyway, this hotbed of small businesses and the development of that. Can you talk about what's been happening there and what do you think the key to success there has been?"

Elsie Meeks: "Well, in the first place it isn't so recent. We've been at this for 20 years at the Lakota Fund, and we really started with micro loans that allowed people to expand their businesses a little, buy more material for arts and crafts or buy a chain saw so they can cut firewood and sell to the Energy Assistance Program. So things like that is where it started, but as time has gone on and people have become more sophisticated about businesses and have sometimes failed, had to pay back loans when their business didn't work so well, but now they're at this point where they really are understanding. There's a group of people, enough, getting to be enough mass of people that understand that the only way they're going to make a living at Pine Ridge is to start their own business and for it to be successful, and that it's okay. I think that's a key thing, too, is that because there hadn't been a lot of businesses owned by tribal members, people really didn't know whether this was culturally appropriate or not, and I think people see now that we're all entrepreneurs and that if we can be successful, our families are going to be supported, too. So as a result of these 20 years, I don't think that there is, on Pine Ridge, I don't believe that there's not one non-Indian contractor for example on Pine Ridge, because they [the Oglala people] have understood that they can do this themselves."

Mary Kim Titla: "And Joan, you've worked with a lot of small businesses. Can you tell me about some of your experiences and what the trends have been lately?"

Joan Timeche: "It really builds self-esteem and self-confidence. I think that's one of the best outcomes out of individuals owning and operating their own business. Not only do they gain the management skills, but I've just seen, worked with individuals...I happened to be visiting the Warm Springs Reservation recently and we were looking at their small business development program and visited with a couple of entrepreneurs who had started their business underneath the program, and this young lady was a single mother and she had entered in the program and she was running a thrift shop and the pride that this woman had. Her business wasn't making millions and not even hundreds of dollars, but that pride that she had, that here she is an individual mother who can then contribute to her own family situation, to the children, and was providing a service within her community. It was just tremendous, and that's I think one other thing that I've been able to see out there. But some of the trends that we've been seeing as we've talked about is -- and Elsie eluded to them already -- you've gone from those who are doing it on a part-time basis who then decide that, 'I can do this, I can really do this, and maybe I need to expand beyond my living room, beyond my garage. Maybe I can start moving out.' But there are risks that are taken in here and some people get burned and they pull back a little bit and then they try again."

Elsie Meeks: "But that's part of life."

Joan Timeche: "Yeah, it is all part of life. But they're moving forward. So we're seeing greater services, but there's still a lot of work to be done out there."

Mary Kim Titla: "So you learn from your mistakes."

Joan Timeche: "Yes."

Mary Kim Titla: "A lot of people who are entrepreneurs and are successful now had very humble beginnings at some point, right?"

Elsie Meeks: "The one thing that I think people...because I was with the Lakota Fund for so many years and they say, 'Well, how many people failed?' And to me, that was not really the cas. That no one failed. They talk about successful people across the nation. How many times were they in a failed business? I think it was something like three-and-a-half times or something on average, and so you learn from your mistakes and you keep moving. I can think of one man at Pine Ridge who -- his first loan with the Lakota Fund was to buy a belly dump gravel truck and he had the money somehow, he had already bought the semi tractor. And so he just started out hauling gravel for the housing authority or whoever and now, I think the last I heard he was...his gross revenue was like over $2 million, he'd become AA certified. So it's just a matter of process and a matter of learning and pursuing this."

Mary Kim Titla: "There are going to be people out there listening to this and watching this wondering, 'Okay, I want to become an entrepreneur.' What are some obstacles they're going to face? I know that the business plan is a very important part of that process and a lot of people maybe don't always think that through, but in your experiences what have you seen?"

Elsie Meeks: "Well, because I was a lender at the Lakota Fund and I think I learned a lot about what really does create a failure and that is, it's management. And so the better you can be prepared to be committed to that business and learn from your mistakes. The business plan is important, but I myself started a business and I can tell you that the business plan is just a guess and it's once you get in business, businesses are about a thousand details and every detail you don't attend to costs you money. And so you have to be prepared to make as small a mistake as possible and dig deep every time. It just requires so much commitment. We've learned at the Lakota Fund that we actually have to know how committed that person is before we'll even give them a loan. The business plan -- almost any business there will work because there aren't many businesses. It's really in whether someone manages it well enough to make it work."

Mary Kim Titla: "And if they have a passion for it. They have to believe in what they're doing. Otherwise how are you going to convince potential clients, right?"

Elsie Meeks: "Right. And I don't want to hog the conversation, but I know when we first started the Lakota Fund, because people hadn't even had a chance to work in a business let alone run one, is people's concept of business was really, 'Oh, I can work for myself so I can work whatever hours I want, yeah, I'll have cash in my pocket.'"

Mary Kim Titla: "Flexibility, yeah."

Elsie Meeks: "That's right, and there isn't any flexibility and there isn't a lot of money. In fact some people would get out of business saying, 'I have more free time at a job than I do at a business and I make more money,' and that's especially true in the first three to five years. So it's helping to teach people those concepts and those principles that business isn't easy, it's just something that, it can get you, it can help you be self-sufficient and some people really do like working for themselves."

Joan Timeche: "I worked for eight years or actually ten years at Northern Arizona University, and I ran the Center for American Indian Economic Development there and one of my jobs was to help tribal citizens who were thinking about starting a business go through that whole process of -- basically I was a technical assistance provider, helping them -- matching them up with potential loans or banks who might be able to lend to them. Well, what I found was that people, one, didn't fully understand what it was that they were getting into, so you have to do this education process about, 'Are you really, do you really understand what starting a business means?' But the other was understanding the tribal political environment and the tribal processes. Where do you go to start? And if you live in communities where it's decentralized and the power's at the local level -- like on Hopi, on Navajo, on Tohono O'odham, and I would imagine on Oglala Reservation as well -- you have local controls and approvals that you have to go through. If you have clan systems like in my community, we have clan holdings so now we have to get approval from our clan matriarchs and patriarchs, we've got to go to our village, before the tribal government even comes into play. So processes is one, understanding that and if you have...I know of one tribe in Arizona that has more than 100 steps to even start a business and it takes, it was taking my clients an average of two years. You could get through in one year but an average was about two years to even start a business and that just is outrageous. Then the other thing, the obstacle that they had to overcome was securing a land base, particularly if they were going to start a storefront [business]. And this is why people opt to go to doing the vending type of businesses where it's mobile and you don't have to worry about land base. Well, again, if you come from traditional families like I do, we have clans to go through first again. Navajo, it's chapters, on Tohono O'odham, it's district approvals and all of the land is tied up and very few communities have land-use plans in existence. They practiced it traditionally, but they don't have it on paper, which is now required for all of the right-of-ways that you have to get for electrical, infrastructure and all that. Then the next problem they had was, well, we're on raw land in many cases, so then you have the infrastructure issues to have to deal with, which can double the cost of starting a business. Those are just some of the basic obstacles that I think entrepreneurs have to face on the reservations. Then when they get to the loans, then they're on federal trust land and you can't encumber the loan, your area, you can't leverage it."

Elsie Meeks: "Which is, I think, almost on any reservation, land will be probably the number-one obstacle, but the next I think is financing because a lot of the people that we work with at Pine Ridge -- and First Nations Oweesta Corporation is now helping 70-plus tribes start organizations like the Lakota Fund to allow entrepreneurs to get financing. You can't finance someone if they don't have the experience in a business, and so that's where community development financial institutions like the Lakota Fund had come about, is that they're willing to take that risk. But financing is the second key issue for an entrepreneur and then these policy issues around land. So at Pine Ridge we actually, we've had 20 years at this now to kind of solve some problems or at least understand the process for solving them, is how do you build that capacity with the entrepreneur? And we started Wawokiye Business Institute, which is really client-centered. It just focuses completely on the entrepreneur and Oglala Lakota College has been a partner in that. And then they started the Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce, which try to work with the tribe in dealing with some of these land issues and some other tribal policies and then the Lakota Fund for the financing. So it's, I think, looking at it in a sort of systematic way and that's what we've begun to do at Pine Ridge. After 20 years, I think we've finally figured this out a little bit. But the obstacles are hard to get through and it takes a lot of effort from a lot of people and I think entrepreneurship really is in the beginning stages."

Mary Kim Titla: "You really have to persevere. I guess you could look at it as an outsider. It's very unique in that there are a lot of similar situations to a non-Native trying to start a business, but you have also unique circumstances that you have to deal with. So I appreciate you sharing all of that. You talked about as long as a year to two years starting a business on a reservation. But really tribal governments want to see you succeed, right? So why don't we talk about that a little bit, what some tribal governments are doing to try to help private citizens become successful."

Joan Timeche: "What we're beginning to see and hear a lot more about are tribes who've taken this two-pronged approach to development. One, where it's not just a -- Elsie talked about this earlier -- where it's tribal enterprises that are owned and operated by the nation itself and then there's private sector development, citizen entrepreneurship. But it requires some things, things like making sure you have sensible regulation, even having a standard process, a basic process of, if you want to start a business on our reservation, here are the steps, here's where you start at, here are some forms you need to know about, here are the rules within which you have to learn. We have a code that addresses maybe signage. We have a code that addresses land use and the process and so on, codes there and making sure that they have a uniform commercial code in existence. There are very few nations across the country that have that, because then it levels that playing ground for outside investors to be able to come in to help finance. If you don't have your own local CDFI [community development financial institution], then you're going to look to outside investors. Things like making sure infrastructure is addressed as well. And again because that's an insurmountable cost that has to be borne by an individual, sometimes it's a whole lot easier if the nation itself can -- in its land use plan -- set aside pieces of property that can be designated for commercial development, and then it's easy for the government to go after those grants to then build the water, the wastewater, the electrical, all of those things, even to do the paving of it and so on, and so all they're doing is then leasing out space to individual entrepreneurs."

Elsie Meeks: "When the Lakota Fund was started, we weren't started by the tribe. We were started by a group of tribal members, tribal citizens. But now there are a number of tribes that have actually helped to form these community development financial institutions like Cheyenne River in South Dakota, Gila River is working on this in Arizona. At Cheyenne River, they funded that to get that started, they provided the funding, but then they spun it off as an independent entity, because financing entities really need to be independent from the tribal government so they can be free to make good loan decisions and all of that and bring in outside money. So there's a number of tribes that are now seeing entrepreneurship as an important tool in economic development, that they don't have to do it all, that individuals can play a role."

Joan Timeche: "There's one other thing, too, that I think is real critical as your tribes begin to get into development at the private sector and it's making sure that you have this efficient and effective dispute resolution mechanism in place, whether it's through traditional courts or through a formal court or whatever, because there are surely going to be more business types of court decisions that have to be made or disputes that have to be addressed and you don't want to always be in court all of the time. So there has to be a mechanism in place and that's something that the government can help set up and create, to create this conducive environment."

Elsie Meeks: "And many of the tribes' court systems really are not efficient and they're not separated from the executive board or whatever. And at Pine Ridge that's true. There are plenty of obstacles at Pine Ridge. Entrepreneurs find a way to deal with that usually but I do think -- through all the businesses that are getting started -- they see now that the tribal court system isn't adequate and so now they're really at this point where they're starting to address that and talk to the judicial committee about that. And it hasn't changed yet, but I absolutely think it will over time and it's because of these businesses and the effect that the current system has on their businesses. So I think it's had a real good practical outcome."

Mary Kim Titla: "And creating a business environment is really crucial I think to the success of entrepreneurship on Indian reservations. I know that at least on the San Carlos [Apache] Reservation, the tribe built a strip mall with the idea of private individuals coming in to lease these spaces, office spaces or retail spaces, which I thought was very smart because a lot of people...just starting up a business is hard enough and then to have to create and build your own building makes it, I think, even more challenging. So I think that with tribes trying to do that more helps that whole positive environment. Are you seeing that more?"

Elsie Meeks: "Yes, absolutely. And the businesses at Pine Ridge helped to start the Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce as I said. To date when we start a business, we lease a piece of ground, we put the water and sewer on it and build the building, even though the tribe may own the piece of ground. So over the last few years, there's been a lot of businesses start on tribal ground and the tribe decided it was time to look at what their commercial rates were, which was fine except that they based it on something that was totally on a per-square[-foot] lease rate in Rapid City and it was would raise people's rates 1,500 percent or something, and because these businesses, through the Chamber of Commerce then went to work and lobbied their council members, when it came to the council floor, the council members got up and said, 'This is really anti-business.' And so that was just a wonderful outcome of the businesses themselves making, addressing some of those barriers."

Mary Kim Titla: "We really appreciate you joining us today. We've gone through some I think wonderful examples of what's out there and given a little bit of advice and some tips to people who might be wanting to start their own businesses. Thank you so much for being with us today, appreciate again your being here and your thoughts. I'm sure that it was helpful to a lot of people who are listening. Elsie Meeks and Joan Timeche, I'd like to thank you once again for appearing on today's edition of Native Nation Building. Native Nation Building is a program of the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management and Policy at the University of Arizona. To learn more about Native Nation Building and the issues discussed on today's program, please visit the Native Nation's Institute's website at Thank you for joining us and please tune in for the next edition of Native Nation Building." 

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