New Approaches to Native Business
In 2014, Sarah Agaton Howes got a call that changed, well, almost everything.
For several years, Howes had been crafting custom beadwork, quilts, and moccasins out of her home on the Fond du Lac Reservation west of Duluth. Her customers were mostly fellow Ojibwe.
Then Louie Gong called. A member of the Nooksack Indian Tribe in the Pacific Northwest, Gong had founded Seattle-based Eighth Generation in 2008 as a retail brand for Native-made art and lifestyle products. He had discovered Howes’ Ojibwe-rooted designs. Could his company incorporate them in wool blankets that Eighth Generation would weave?
Howes was interested. She also wasn’t sure how she’d make it work. “I’d always struggled with how I would do business while keeping with my own cultural values, ideas, and stories,” she says. “And I wondered how that could happen in a way that would actually fill up the propane tank. Because doing beadwork and sewing and trying to make a living off of it is really, really difficult.” What’s more, “I hadn’t seen models of successful Native entrepreneurship.”
She’s now one of those models. Operating out of her own building at Fond du Lac, Howes designs and sells woolen goods, jewelry, apparel, and housewares through her company, Heart Berry. “Heart berry” is the direct English translation of ode’imin, the Ojibwe word for strawberry. The ode’imin “tells a great story about leading with your heart, working with your heart,” Howes says. It’s an image and a meaning, she adds, that’s “relatable [for] Native and non-Native people.”
Native entrepreneurship is by no means a new phenomenon. To name just one long-established example: Loretto-based Shingobee Builders, founded in 1980 by Gae Veit, a member of South Dakota’s Crow Creek Band of Lakota. Another is Bemidji-based machining company Wells Technology, launched in 1985 by Andy Wells, a tribal citizen of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa.
But in the past few years, Native entrepreneurs have been raising their profile, and not just within their own communities. In the Twin Cities, chef Sean Sherman is showcasing his inventive takes on Indigenous cuisine at Owamni, his Minneapolis riverside restaurant, and visitors to the Dayton’s Project on Nicollet Mall can stop by the Native Roots Trading Post in the former J.B. Hudson space to browse and buy the work of artisans from all over Turtle Island (a traditional name for North America often used by Indigenous people).
It’s easy to think of Native entrepreneurs in terms of creative endeavors. But they’re also launching and running businesses (often with little startup funding) in solar energy, construction, food production, and digital technology. Many talk about building self-sufficient economic sovereignty for their communities. At the same time, of course, their businesses are attracting the attention (and dollars) of non-Native people.
A new day in Native entrepreneurism
In October, Minneapolis-based moccasin maker Minnetonka made a remarkable admission: CEO David Miller publicly apologized for appropriating Native culture and designs in the 75-year-old company’s products. He also announced that Minnetonka was working with artist and activist Adrienne Benjamin, a tribal citizen of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, to market hats featuring her beadwork designs.
Indigenous designers welcomed Miller’s acknowledgement. “People love Native art,” Howes says. “But for so long, there were only non-Native companies making this pan-Indian art that really wasn’t connected to any community.” She thinks that’s changing, however. “What we’ve been able to do is use our own stories and create work that reflects that.”
For Pamela Standing, a Cherokee Nation citizen and executive director of the Minnesota Indigenous Business Alliance (MNIBA), helping Native artists and entrepreneurs succeed on their own terms includes encouraging them “to think a little bit bigger about their business strategy.” MNIBA connects entrepreneurs with Native experts in business and financial planning, as well as with lending resources such as Native community development financial institutions (CDFIs). It also conducts “boot camps” led by Native professionals on topics such as social media, branding, and website design.
“We also connect entrepreneurs to other entrepreneurs to cross-promote and work together,” Standing says. “Native people believe they have something of great value that can help not only their own community but the greater community as well. There’s a movement that’s very exciting.”
Four years ago, Standing says, MNIBA responded to that shift by starting the Buy Native campaign, which encourages businesses across Native communities to buy from each other. This year, MNIBA will go live with a nationwide online directory listing Native nonprofits and professionals, as well as businesses, artists, and tribal governments.
“We’re challenging the capitalistic model that is very competitive, very extractive,” Standing says. “We’re looking at a restorative, values-based economy that focuses on the well-being of the community and the environment, above the preservation and accumulation of capital.” For instance, “we still practice the giveaway, which is a way we share our good fortune with others. It’s a part of being a Native person.” Native-owned companies express that giveaway ethos, for example, by “hiring Natives first. We will train people, we will make opportunities in our communities to offer a living wage when we get our businesses going.” Standing cites Andy Wells, whose nonprofit Wells Academy provides education in life skills, along with certification in CNC machining, for disadvantaged Native young people.
In a sense, Louie Gong has practiced the giveaway in his work with Native designers. “He helped me walk through so many steps,” Howes recalls, including building a website and learning Adobe Illustrator. “He pushed me to think about the future, to think bigger. And really, by shining a light on what’s possible.”
More than beads and feathers
Standing and others would like to see more attention on the diversity of Native entrepreneurship—indeed, upon Native economic activity generally. That data is poorly tracked, she says. “I wish we could be more like Canada, where they have federal entities that track [First Nations’] growth and expenditure data.” (She’d also like to see programs like Pow Wow Pitch, a Canadian entrepreneurship platform, emulated on this side of the border.) In the U.S., though there is some data about the Native workforce, the growth of the Native economy in general appears to be largely anecdotal.
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As interest has grown in work by Indigenous artists and artisans, Standing says, “I get calls looking for craftspeople, because they think all we are is beads and feathers. But we’re so much more than that.”
They’re also writers, illustrators, and publishers. In 2018, recently retired college educators Thomas Peacock and Betsy Albert-Peacock founded Duluth-based Black Bears and Blueberries to publish children’s books written by Native authors. “We’ve found a niche—an unfulfilled need,” says Peacock, a member of the Fond du Lac band and a Minnesota Book Award-winning novelist. “Schools in particular were looking for culturally accurate, authentic materials that they can use, especially in the early elementary grades, when children are first learning to read.”
Black Bears and Blueberries provides a path for Native illustrators as well as authors to publish their work. Nearly all of the 25 books it has published are rooted in Ojibwe culture, with some Lakota-oriented. One that speaks to all kids is Rez Dog, which doesn’t identify any particular nation. This book has been “extremely popular because many reservations have ‘rez dog’ rescue organizations,” Peacock says.
The Peacocks also have published books for adults, including Voices Rising, an anthology of work by Minnesota Native women, commissioned by the Hennepin County Library. In addition, they are producing a book about Duluth-based Ojibwe painter Sam Zimmerman.
Black Bears and Blueberries has “grown way more than we ever dreamt it would grow,” says Betsy Albert-Peacock, a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, who directs the company’s marketing. “We have books all over the United States and Canada” as well as overseas, including Australia.
Tradition and tech
Many buyers discover Black Bears and Blueberries’ books online. In fact, Native entrepreneurs have embraced social media as an inexpensive, expansive tool for building community as well as sales. But making the fullest use of it is a struggle. Native communities are often located in rural areas, which can be challenging places to access broadband.
Brooklyn Park-based Turtle Island Communications (TICOM) has been addressing that challenge since 2001. It was founded by Madonna Yawakie, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota, and engineer husband Mel Yawakie, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Zuni in New Mexico. Their company has completed wireless and wireline projects for several communities across Indian Country, including one in Minnesota. TICOM also has provided engineering and technical consulting services to three Minnesota-based tribes.
In the past year, the federal government has begun offering hundreds of millions of dollars to support Native broadband development. Madonna Yawakie is optimistic that this money will help tribal projects move from planning to implementation.
Solar power is another technology drawing Native business interest. Case in point: 8th Fire, a solar-thermal panel manufacturer and installer founded by Ojibwe activist and entrepreneur Winona LaDuke. Located west of the Leech Lake Reservation in Ponsford, 8th Fire describes its mission as “building a better future for our Native American communities by creating and assembling a sustainable and renewable energy product.”
Robert Blake was spurred by a similar vision when he started Minneapolis-based Solar Bear in 2017. A member of the Red Lake Band, Blake was working for Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light, a Minneapolis nonprofit that promotes solar energy, when the Red Lake Tribal Council asked him to direct the installation of a 78-kilowatt project for the tribe’s government center. “Red Lake was seeking to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels,” Blake says. “And our tribal chairman wanted to create employment opportunities. Solar Bear was really born out of that opportunity.”
Since then, Solar Bear has developed projects for Native and non-Native clients. Blake also founded Native Sun, a nonprofit that provides workforce development and training for Native people seeking careers in renewable energy. “Native nations have a big role to play in this energy transformation,” he says, and they have the opportunity to create their own tribal utilities, “which can act as economic development tools for their communities.”
Sean Sherman’s success as the self-styled “Sioux Chef” reflects the growing general attention on Indigenous cuisine. Several Native entrepreneurs have started farms that emphasize traditional Native foods and community “food sovereignty.” One is Harvest Nation, which operates an organic aeroponic farm on the Lake Vermilion section of the Bois Forte Ojibwe reservation. Nature Wise, based in Sawyer in Carlton County, produces honey and maple syrup, and grows wild rice, and organic heirloom vegetables, and CBD hemp. Started in 2019, it also has begun selling CBD products as well as farm-raised beef and chicken. Patra Wise, who owns Nature Wise with husband David, says that their business had to overcome a lack of startup funding. “It’s hard to start out as a small family business, but we put in the extra hours on top of our 9-to-5 jobs until we were able to reach the point of generating an income.”
Nature Wise has been able to build sales through its website and at farmers markets. Another sales channel is Indigenous First, an arts and gifts market that sells online as well as through a bricks-and-mortar location in downtown Duluth. It was launched in 2017 by the Duluth-based American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO), whose mission also includes economic development and entrepreneurship.
“Indigenous First exists because the Indigenous community of artists and entrepreneurs had a vision for many years of a premier retail space to feature its extraordinary work,” AICHO co-executive director LeAnn Littlewolf says. “It’s exciting to see the revenue earned, which goes directly back to Indigenous entrepreneurs and the Native community, nearly double each fiscal year.”
Paths old and new
In many respects, Herb Fineday’s story is representative of the journey Native entrepreneurs have taken in the last few years. Three years ago, Fineday retired as the Fond du Lac reservation’s chief of police to live out his long-held dream: working full-time as an artist. “I had a good client base going into it,” he says, and thanks to social media, he “was soon booked up for the remainder of 2019.”
Before launching his company, Round Lake Traditions, Fineday had worked on the side as an artist designing and sewing traditional garments. He has constructed custom-designed velvet vests with Ojibwe floral beaded designs, which are worn by men when dancing at powwows or other festivals. He also has crafted jingle dresses for Ojibwe dancers and concho belts made from hand-dyed strap leather.
In the past year, Fineday has been walking a somewhat different path. With Covid’s arrival, “I had to adjust my work,” he says. “I know a lot of the artists out there now are doing digital design work and selling their own clothing.” In 2021, after teaching himself Adobe Illustrator and other digital design tools, Fineday began creating his own lines of T-shirts, thermal tops, and hats.
“Getting my website operational and getting product on there is my main focus right now,” Fineday says. He plans to re-emphasize custom work once the site is operating to his satisfaction. “I’m in a business, and I need to keep up with the times,” he adds. “Just like the Ojibwe people, I don’t want to get stuck in the past. We need to progress like everybody else. And that’s what I’ve been doing, as much I can.”
That said, Fineday also spends a lot of his time working as what he calls “a land-based educator.” He welcomes people to join him in harvesting wild rice or tapping maple trees at Fond du Lac. “I don’t want to see these traditional activities disappear,” he says.
Personal and community sovereignty
Though she’s an enrolled member of the Fond du Lac Band, “I did not grow up as a traditional Indian at all,” Susan Roper says. Still, she and her family are rooted in Ojibwe culture. “Winter is the time you tell stories,” she says.
Here’s the story Roper tells about her business: Before starting Duluth-based Mission Trucking in 2011, she was a bus driver for vulnerable adults at a day care facility, “working my heart out.” Her husband, Ray, had been working in the trucking industry, and she saw an opportunity to enter the field herself. By striking out on her own, she says, “I wouldn’t have to take care of a single human being but myself.”
Roper’s trucks are used mostly in road construction in the Duluth-Superior market, where demand has been strong. Mission Trucking also has worked on demolition and soil remediation projects in the off-season, after its highway projects are completed. The company now employs eight people. Loans from the Northeast Entrepreneur Fund helped her purchase additional vehicles. Mission Trucking’s fleet now comprises three quad-axle dump trucks and two larger quint-axle dump trucks, along with a semitrailer.
“I would like to add new capabilities and not necessarily add new trucks,” Roper says. “Every time you add a truck, you have to add an employee, and insurance costs, fuel costs, etc.” To find those new paths, she’s tapping the expertise of her son, Phil, who has worked on wetland delineation and oil-water separation projects, as well as soil remediation. Another possibility she’s considering is installing temporary fencing, which “can be quite profitable,” Roper says. Where the business has been and where it might be going are among the stories she and her family have been sharing this winter.
Meanwhile, Heart Berry’s story is taking a new turn. The company will soon be moving to a larger headquarters building at Fond du Lac, “which I think we’ll probably outgrow, too,” Sarah Agaton Howes says. Her vision for what might come next extends beyond herself and her company. “I really want to create a model for how we can be economically sovereign,” she says. Part of that vision includes “being a role model,” she says, “and to share that with my community.”