Tribe members venture into business world

Steve Tripoli Dec 4, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Native American communities have some of the highest rates of unemployment in the country. Persistent poverty has meant no real economic development on reservations for decades. But a burst of new business creation is changing that. Steve Tripoli reports from the Marketplace Entrepreneurship Desk some Native Americans now see entrepreneurship as the way ahead.

STEVE TRIPOLI: Much of the economy of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation just doesn’t make sense. One particular statistic irritates chamber of commerce head Ivan Sorbel.

IVAN SORBEL: It’s estimated that $80 million come onto the reservation in any given year and approximately about 80 percent of that leaves the reservation within 24 hours.

That’s because there aren’t many businesses on the reservation to capture those dollars. People head straight to border towns to shop.Sorbel says it’s bad enough that money doesn’t circulate inside a reservation where unemployment’s a staggering 60 percent. But it’s especially aggravating for such an isolated place. Pine Ridge is the size of Connecticut and has just 25,000 residents in a few towns. Most all are members of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe. Yet people often travel a hundred miles for services as basic as a haircut.

ELSIE MEEKS: You know, the tribe as a whole, it’s been a bit of a stretch for them to understand that private entrepreneurship is important.

Tribe member Elsie Meeks says small business is missing here because tribal culture emphasizes group advancement, so many still frown on individual profit. But there’s a growing number of tribal small-business initiatives and they’re paying off. U.S. Census figures show the number of Native-American entrepreneurs nearly doubling in recent years. And here’s a surprise: Native-owned small businesses collectively generate more revenue than tribal casinos now.

In Pine Ridge, one business success story sits high on a hilltop overlooking the town of Kyle.

KARLENE HUNTER: So this is Lakota Express and we’re currently in the 50-seat call center.

Lakota Express is a modern call center and marketing shop with clients around the country. There’s even a client in China. CEO Karlene Hunter is another person who’s bothered by how quickly tribe members’ dollars leave Pine Ridge. But now she says the flight of cash from here is slowing.

HUNTER: That’s why first-generation entrepreneurs are taking the steps of, OK, we need stores, we need restaurants. We’ve got our first motel. I mean, if they stay on the reservation they’re gonna buy gas down at the local convenience store. Dollar turns over again.

Hunter’s fellow tribe member Elsie Meeks has a hand in all this. Twenty years ago she co-founded the Lakota Fund. It offers startup loans and all kinds of training to entrepreneurs and tribal businesses on Pine Ridge.

But Meeks didn’t stop there. She quickly helped expand the concept into a bigger organization called First Nations Oweesta Corporation. Oweesta, a Mohawk word for money, now has a startup fund and entrepreneurship training progrram that’s used by tribes around the country.

But the startup game on reservations is by no means easy yet.

MONA PATTON: This is the first part of the store here.

Mona Patton owns the bustling Lil’ Angels convenience store in Kyle. Her startup funds came from two family tragedies. Now she wants to build a full-service grocery store and movie theater. But doing that on Pine Ridge means overcoming obstacles most entrepreneurs never face.

PATTON: Water mains, sewer mains. We had to develop the water, the sewer and the road. And it costs you a lot of money.

Funding her own infrastructure isn’t the only problem. Tribal laws cloud land rights. That alone can extend the startup process for months or even years. In Pine Ridge there’s an effort to change those laws.

So, reservation economies still have a long way to go. But Elsie Meeks says the nationwide numbers show Indians stirring from the nightmare that started with confinement to reservations.

MEEKS: Being taken out of a lifestyle of self-sufficiency and — I mean, it really took away every role people had. So, planting this seed that people can become self-sufficient is . . . you know, been our whole challenge. One of the biggest challenges we have.

But now she says more Indians see how they might control their futures. Business ownership is one way. And she says it doesn’t matter if it brings its share of the reverses all businesspeople face. The important thing, she says, is that all the consequences will belong to us.

In Kyle, South Dakota, I’m Steve Tripoli for Marketplace.

Lakota Express CEO Karlene Hunter, outside her company’s hilltop office in Kyle, gestures toward some new construction down below.

Lil’ Angels owner Mona Patton in her office, which looks down into the store.

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