Native Americans get business smart

Eva Gilbert's salon

Resources for Native American entrepreneurs

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MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: Starting a business can be tremendously challenging under any circumstances. Doing it where there's deep poverty and a lack of know-how is much harder. On Indian reservations the need for that extra push is shaping a new generation of business startup programs. Steve Tripoli at the Marketplace Entrepreneurship Desk takes us to one such program on a reservation in South Dakota.


STEVE TRIPOLI: Let's start with a quick lesson in the Lakota Sioux language from tribe member Tanya Fiddler.
TANYA FIDDLER:"Icahya woecun. The place to grow."

On the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, Icahya woecun stands for a multi-faceted approach to launching businesses.

The philosophy is that startup loans aren't enough. You have to grow business through training, follow-up support, incubators and more.

And it's working. Forty-five new Native-owned businesses have been launched here in recent years.

GILBERT: This is my vanity, this is where I cut hair, do perms . . .

In a run-down trailer park in the reservation town of Eagle Butte Eva Gilbert has a hair and nail salon going.

The business is new. A local program called Four Bands Community Fund gave her a startup loan. That was only the start.

GILBERT: They provided a lot of technical assistance, like when I was settin' up my computer. We're working on setting up a virtual hair-styling thing on my computer to where people can come in and see themselves in a hairdo before they get it."

Advisers from Four Bands also helped Gilbert launch a basic piece of marketing: Do someone's hair for free and then put the before-and-after pictures in a newspaper ad.

GILBERT: These makeovers when I put 'em in, that really generates a lot of phone calls and a lot of appointments and things when people see those in the paper.

On Cheyenne River the obstacles to business startups are formidable. Four bands of the Lakota Sioux nation live in remote isolation here. Poverty and unemployment are massive.

It's the size of Connecticut. But tribal and federal laws make it hard to tap equity in land for new business ventures.

Tanya Fiddler heads the Four Bands startup fund. She says one of its jobs is to remind the Lakota they were resourceful people before they lost control of their lives to the reservation system.

TANYA FIDDLER: And everybody gets that now. The entrepreneurs that we work with, they get that about themselves. They realize that they get to dream and make those come into being, versus relying on somebody else to do that."

Programs like this one are springing up around the country. In Oregon, seven tribes jointly launched one. Another Lakota tribe pioneered the concept. That inspired a nationwide Indian entrepreneurship initiative.

Tanya Fiddler says Native culture makes the welfare of future generations a sacred trust. That duty plus impatience with decades of stagnation is driving people toward entrepreneurship.

FIDDLER: So I think, almost a desperation, but a good desperation that people are grabbing this. Because there's some hope for turning things around. If they're the role model and the example for their children and grandchildren, there's that hope that it's going to change.

The pace of change is accelerating. This year about 400 tribe members enrolled in Cheyenne River's entrepreneurship programs.

In Eagle Butte, South Dakota, I'm Steve Tripoli for Marketplace.

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