Forefront of Econ Development in Indian Country by Chris James-AIED

At the Forefront of Economic Development in Indian Country

By Chris James, American Indian Enterprise Development

National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development_logoFor over 50 years, the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development (NCAIED) has played a leading role in economic development for tribes, tribal owned businesses, Native American and Alaska Native entrepreneurs, and anyone seeking to do business or invest in Indian Country. Through our training and technical assistance programs, expert staff, and knowledge of the business landscape across the over 500 federally recognized tribes and other Native American or Alaska Native entities in the United States, there is no doubt that we mean business for Indian Country.

Our most notable event is the Reservation Economic Summit (RES), which takes place every March in Las Vegas. For four days, thousands of entrepreneurs, corporate and government officials, tribal leaders, and many others gather to learn about the Native American economy and its challenges – and many investment and partnership opportunities. For over three decades, countless partnerships and business relationships have emerged from the connections made and lessons learned at RES.

NCAIED Reservation Economic Summit 2019
2019 NCAIED Reservation Economic Summit Tradeshow

Of course, the National Center is more than RES. Our American Indian Procurement and Technical Assistance Centers (AIPTACs) located around the country provide expert training and services to companies that want to contract with both the government and private sectors. With offices in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Georgia, and Virginia, to date our AIPTAC has assisted thousands of businesses to secure over $4 billion in contracts, creating tens of thousands of jobs and economic development opportunities for tribes and their members.

The National Center focuses on advocacy at the federal level, joining with fellow Indian Country organizations such as the National Congress of American Indians, National Indian Gaming Association, Native American Contractors Association, and the Native American Finance Officers Association to push a robust agenda in Washington. It is important for our community to speak with a united front in DC, especially since we’ve fought for so long and so hard to get where we are today. We now have four Native American members of Congress, including the first two females to be elected at the federal level. The National Center is proud to help share the need for robust economic development legislation targeting the needs of our Native entrepreneurs.

We are also grooming the next generation of Native leaders and entrepreneurs through our annual business scholarship program and Native American 40 under 40 awards. Over the past 10 years, we have recognized over 400 impressive individuals through this program, who have gone on to do amazing things in diverse fields. One–Sharice Davids–is one of those Members of Congress, representing Kansas’s 3rd Congressional District. One of our organization’s new initiatives is creating a forum for 40 under 40 winners to continue to stay in contact and ultimately work with each other, enabling an even stronger community.

When it comes to investing in or doing business with Indian Country, partnership, collaboration, and community are encouraged. I see this every year at RES. While many of the companies that participate in RES are ostensibly competitors, there is never a hesitation to share wisdom and advice with fellow Native business leaders. Though it may be a cliché, we realize that a rising tide lifts all boats. This mantra is certainly true for Native and tribally owned businesses.

Native businesses often operate with a different sense of purpose than their non-Native competitors. The “7th Generation” principle is very strong in the Native American economy. It’s the idea that every decision made today should benefit both the people and the lands on which they live seven generations into the future. Native businesses operate and invest with a deep understanding of the long term, as well as the investment’s impact on the environment and the well-being of members of the tribe.

However, far from a burden, these principles often create opportunity. For example, Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC) in Alaska touts its “Fish First” priority – a recognition of the centrality of salmon to the Alaska Native way of life. But responsible commercial fishing is also a part of BBNC’s diversified portfolio. In 2019, BBNC acquired two of the leading freezer longline cod fishing companies, putting the company in a position to bring Bering Sea earnings home to Alaska, benefiting its 10,000 shareholders as well as the local economy.

A commitment to environmental sustainability and community connects many Native-owned businesses. Over the last two years, we have profiled Native businesses so we can share their stories with a broader audience. Without prompting, many of these companies tout their sustainability and commitment to giving back to their communities.

For example, the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin’s ESC Group’s mission is “to preserve, restore, and enhance the natural and constructed environment for future generations through successful project delivery for our customers.” Denver-based Iron Woman Construction and Environmental Services’ motto is “Building Today for a Sustainable Tomorrow.”

Investing in the tribe and the mentor-mentee relationship are common themes among the businesses with which we work. Managing Partner of Green Bay, WI-based Mavid Construction Zoar Fulwilder notes, “I take pride that I can help provide a place where Natives can learn, get medical care, and live.” The Navajo Nation’s Dine Development Corporation has a robust mentor/protégé program designed to train, prepare, and ultimately promote tribal members into leadership positions within the tribe’s economic development entities.

The spirit of collaboration is encapsulated in Deidra Mitchell, CEO of Waséyabek Development Company, LLC, (WDC), a wholly-owned entity of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi that’s based in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan: “Although my time is fully dedicated to building the WDC portfolio of businesses these days, I still try to find time to help new companies.”

Though Native-owned businesses are diverse and operate in virtually any field imaginable, there is much more that unites than separates them: a sense of purpose, giving back, environmental sustainability, and a view for the future. These are all common traits for the companies with which I work, and one of the reasons it’s an honor to lead an organization dedicated to their long-term success.


Article by Chris James, President and CEO of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development. Prior to joining the National Center in 2017, Chris was Associate Administrator at the U.S. Small Business Administration. Chris was closely involved in White House and interagency coordination with the SBA and had a hand in implementing all SBA programs and services nationwide, including those focused on the Native American community. His first job in the Obama Administration was at the Department of Treasury, where he served as an Associate Program Manager focused on Native American Community Development Financial Institutions. His entry in tribal economic development was as Associate Director and Senior Loan Officer for the Sequoyah Fund, a Native American CDFI and an enterprise of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Chris has a Master of Entrepreneurship from Western Carolina University and a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies from UNC-Wilmington.

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