Economic opportunities are hard to come by in Blanding, Utah. The tiny community—population 3,500—is in the remote Four Corners region, and its economy relies heavily on agriculture and tourism. The median household income in Blanding sits at $33,000, just over half of the overall state median of $60,000.
Poverty is a daily reality in Blanding, particularly for youth and the elderly. The town is close to both the Navajo and the White Mesa Ute reservations, and about a third of its residents are American Indian.*
In 2004, Elaine Borgen moved into the community. At that time, she was a volunteer with AmeriCorps VISTA, a program that fights poverty. Local Navajo youth in Blanding would often come to her home as they went door to door selling baked goods. After some time, Borgen, whose background is in economic development, brainstormed with the youth and together they came up with the idea to begin a chocolate company, Lickity Split Chocolates.
The business wouldn’t be too hard for the kids to learn, and the 14 Navajo youth would learn how to run a business and bring in more money. The teens immediately took to the idea, deciding to make chocolates that would be unique to their tribe.
“We needed something that was personal to us,” says Jordan Dayish, assistant manager at Lickity Split Bakery. “That led into us making our signature products, chocolate Navajo baskets and lollipops.”
Dayish explains there is a Navajo tradition to give newlyweds woven baskets that tell both the tribal history and the couple’s story as they embark on their new life together. In the bakery, that tradition takes on a sweet flavor, as the youth make small lollipop “wedding baskets” and chocolate pops made to look like native hairpieces—each sold with a story attached explaining their tribal history and value.
In the past few years, the chocolate company has evolved and diversified to include baked goods, with the bakery’s cinnamon rolls getting high marks from customers.
“We just wanted to make something that people would like and enjoy,” says Dayish. “A lot of people, especially travelers, love bakeries—but there are none here. So we thought that we should start the bakery.”
The bakery has sparked an entrepreneurial spirit in the Navajo youth who work in it, says Borgen, who owns Lickity Split’s Main Street building, with the youth owning shares in the business.
American Indians in Utah face many unique challenges as they strive for economic growth and an improved quality of life. On the reservations, the lack of a tax base and embryonic business structures stand in the way of securing the financial backing needed for projects of significant size. In urban settings, American Indian entrepreneurs struggle to find financial backing and gain exposure for their businesses.
Due to the lack of opportunities on the reservations, many American Indians with business backgrounds have migrated to Salt Lake County and other metropolitan areas, says Shirlee Silversmith, director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, and others must leave the reservations to find steady work or continue their education.
Headquartered in Sandy, the Utah American Indian Chamber of Commerce was formed in 2008 with the mission of connecting tribal businesses both on and off reservation land with their peers, bridging the distance—geographically and culturally—between American Indian communities, and making the names of these businesses better known in the community.
Still very small in membership, the organization was conceived and is led by Cal Nez, a Navajo entrepreneur whose graphic design business has worked with many tribal organizations and American Indian-owned companies over the last three decades.
Nez says he regularly attends trade shows to promote Utah’s American Indian businesses, and remains frustrated and baffled by the general lack of awareness regarding American Indian companies.
“We have a long way to go to get the word out there. Our resources, our talent and our businesses are so, so tiny, but we’re trying,” he says. “We need help from the media and from people for them to be able to realize that it’s a positive thing to engage the private Native businesses.”
Nez also wants to promote and encourage entrepreneurship among American Indians, and he believes this trend will begin with the youth. He says young American Indians need to start thinking with the mentality of an employer, rather than an employee, and realize their potential.
For entrepreneur Palmer Gambler, launching his business was all about filling an empty niche, particularly for American Indian youth.
“When I went shopping, I wanted to wear clothing that had a little bit of an [American Indian] look. I noticed a lot of more modern clothing lines—Hollister, Abercrombie, Nike—had more of a graphic design, but I didn’t see anything in a Native American look that I was looking for.”
So, armed with a background in architecture, animation and graphic design, Gambler set off to slowly build a company that would feature apparel with graphics that were clean and modern, but expressed a sense of heritage and history.
It’s been more than two years since Gambler’s “aha” moment and Stoic Native has been growing slowly, selling T-shirts online, at powwows and other gatherings, and gradually expanding the line. So far, he says, his shirts have been well received. “I’ve had a lot of good reception, especially from my target audience—teenagers to mid-30s,” he says. “Even those who don’t like T-shirts say they like the designs.”
Gambler says he’s been putting more focus into the venture over the last six months or so, but has still tried to be patient and make smart business decisions.
“Some of the challenge is trying to be patient. I’ve been trying to maintain a debt-free mentality, paying for things with cash so I don’t make it hard on my family,” Gambler says. “Because of that, I can’t throw thousands of dollars into a little shop or materials and those kinds of things. I’ve had to build slowly.”
But slow or not, Gambler has been building—and that incremental progress has helped his other business, a graphic design company called Monkey Tees, grow as well.
“Because people like my designs, I’ve been able to get a couple of jobs doing powwow T-shirt designs or Native American clubs or elementary schools,” he says. “With the younger generation, [graphic American Indian designs] are something they never really had an option to see.”
Ultimately, the Sandy man says he wants to find enough success to be seen as a staple in the local business community, as well as his native Navajo Nation in Northern Arizona. “I hope to be able to get enough recognition and to be a leader in business not only in urban areas but back home on the reservation, too,” Gambler says.
Business leaders are becoming increasingly vital for American Indian tribal groups. Over the years, tribal governments have begun to look inward and harness their own resources and entrepreneurial spirit to build economic opportunities for tribal members who live on the reservations.
Silversmith says economic development remains especially difficult for tribes that inhabit more rural areas of the state. Far removed from major transportation routes for shipping and access, their market is virtually nonexistent.
But American Indian tribes are increasingly leveraging their land and natural resources to strengthen their economic situation. Such endeavors are carefully planned with utmost consideration given to the long-term social and economic impacts, a methodology known as “seven-generation thinking.”
In southwestern Utah, for example, the Paiute tribe is building on its proximity to Zion National Park and other parks in the area. The Paiute tribe consists of five separate bands—the Kanosh, the Koosharem, the Indian Peaks, the Shivwits and the Cedar Band of Paiutes—inhabiting 4,470 acres scattered across southwestern Utah.
Two years ago, the tribe received a corporate donation of 178 acres of undeveloped land in Springdale with the purpose of building a cultural center, museum and hotel. Gaylord Robb, the tribe’s trust resource and economic development director, says the project, when complete, will serve a two-fold purpose of re-establishing the Paiute presence in their traditional homeland and capitalizing on the tourism draw of Zion National Park, which exceeds 3.5 million visitors annually. The tribe is currently working with the town government to reach an agreement. Another hotel near Cedar City and a farmers’ market are also being discussed, he says.
The Paiutes have taken other strides in building their economy as well. Robb worked with the tribe’s attorney to develop a business, commercial and corporations code in 2008 that would allow the tribe to be recognized as a lawful business entity, giving lenders more confidence in supporting tribal businesses.
Economic development is a long-term effort, but Robb says the improving economic conditions have been reflected in the general attitudes among his tribe’s population of approximately 900. Continuing this upward trend will rely upon “honesty and good management” within the tribal leadership, he says.
“The success we’ve had in the past is just baby steps compared to where we’re planning to go. We’ll go as quickly as we can, but we’re not going to take out big loans or a lot of debt to do so,” he says. “We remain safe and secure, yet the growth is increasing all the time. I see big things for the future.”
Tourism, recreation, agriculture and natural resources are mainstays of the statewide tribal economy. American Indian businesses are diverse and include gas stations and convenience stores, technology companies, RV parks, art galleries, a winery, cattle ranches, retail shops and more. Most are small businesses that operate within reservation boundaries.
The Cedar Band of the Paiute tribe developed a government contracting company and eight other businesses that operate both on and off tribal land, as far away as California and Washington, D.C.
The Cedar Band houses its companies under the holding company Cedar Band Corporation. Under Section 17 of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, tribes can petition the federal government to charter a corporation, so long as one-third of the tribe or band’s adult Indians are part of the petition and the operation is ratified by a majority vote.
Section 17 stipulates that the board of directors must always include a majority of band members, and Cedar Band Corporation’s nine-person board includes six tribal members. The board of directors declares the distribution of any profit created by the corporation back to the band, and then the band council determines how to expend those funds in their community, whether it goes to a senior program, an after-school drug elimination program or other avenues.
The Cedar Band Corporation’s companies are quite diverse—the five main businesses, for a long time, were government and defense contracting companies. According to Paul Terry, president and CEO of the corporation, hard times fell on the band in 2013 during the government shutdown and budget sequestration.
“With [the sequestration] and with the partial government shutdown during those 16 days in October 2013, that all formed a perfect storm,” says Terry. “It was detrimental to a lot of government contracting entities, but particularly to us. We could see this pending storm coming—so in 2012, we opened our Trading Post south of Cedar City … We knew couldn’t just stay in government contracting. We would either win or lose by the government contracting sword. At that point, we were starting to die—we [had] to branch out and not have all our proverbial eggs in one basket.”
Diversifying was a must. Terry says that the band self-funded its trading post, which sells convenience store products and Indian tobacco, and then turned its energies toward other ventures. One is a mortgage company, which, because the band is a sovereign entity, can offer its clients more than a traditional lender or bank. The other is a wine company, Twisted Cedar.
The Cedar Band chose to partner with a vineyard and winery in Lodi, California. “They grow, harvest, crush and bottle our grapes and ship our wine to our warehouse in Napa County. It’s our end-product and our label, Twisted Cedar,” says Terry.
The response to Twisted Cedar has been incredibly positive so far, he says. The label was just selected as the exclusive line of wines at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian’s Mitsitam Café. Whole Foods picked up the wines and has begun testing them out in their Northern California and Nevada markets. Terry is hopeful that Southern Wine and Spirits in Florida will soon do the same—and afterwards, perhaps Sam’s Club. Five of the eight varieties under the Twisted Cedar label are available in Utah, from St. George to Logan, says Terry.
“We took a tremendous hit from the government contracting side, so all the funds we’ve reinvested; we’ve stood things up ourselves without outside funds or lending,” he says. “It goes back to our founding CEO and the vision of the band council at the time—the desire to diversify and not rely on federal grants that come through the various means.”
The majority of economic development on Utah’s reservations has taken place within the last 20 to 30 years, with each tribe following the path most fitting for its land, resources and interests.
Straddling the Utah-Arizona border is The View Hotel, owned by Amanda Ortega, a young Navajo businesswoman. Ortega’s background is unique: Her mother was deeply traditional in following the Navajo ways, while her father, a successful Indian trader, taught her to be business-minded. The result of Ortega’s upbringing and ambition is The View Hotel, which has 95 rooms and is decorated with authentic décor from tribal artists who have worked with the Ortega family for six generations. It is the only hotel located within the Najavo Tribal Park.
“Job creation on tribal land means economic opportunity but also translates into cultural preservation,” said Joe Shirley, former Navajo Nation president, upon the opening of The View Hotel. “When family members can find employment close to their traditional homes they stay connected with their culture and their language. This fosters an environment where traditional ways of the Navajo people can be passed from generation to generation.”
Navajo Tribal Park in Monument Valley also has several Navajo-owned tour companies, which offer Navajo-led hike, jeep or horseback tours of the area. Hiking in the Najavo Tribal Park is not allowed without a certified Najavo guide.
The Navajo economy relies heavily on tourism, including visitation to tribal parks like Monument Valley, along with mineral extraction, oil reserve revenues, and handmade arts and crafts.
The Utah Navajo Health System, which receives 25 percent of its funding through federal and private grants, employs a primarily American Indian workforce of over 250. Housing and community development projects are supported with remunerations from oil production on reservation land in San Juan County, administered by the Utah Navajo Royalties Holding Fund.
Far to the north, the 4.5-million acre Uintah and Ouray Reservation is the state’s largest American Indian reservation and the second-largest nationwide. The region is rich with mineral resources; oil and natural gas production from tribal land represents one-fourth of all oil and gas produced annually in Uintah County. Its business arm, Ute Tribal Enterprises, LLC, employs over 150 tribe members in various industries, from food services to recreation.
The Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, who reside on approximately 200 acres near the Idaho border, operate a system of meteorological and particle monitoring stations through funding from the Clean Air Act to collect and analyze data on the region’s air quality and weather patterns, with the long-term goal of developing and maintaining an effective air quality program. The tribe is working closely with the EPA to expand environmental protection measures and related job opportunities on a yearly basis as part of their General Assistance Program.
In western Utah, the economy of the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes, who reside on 18,000 acres in Tooele County, is primarily supported by natural resources. The tribe leases the Tekoi Test Range, a rocket testing facility, to generate additional revenue.
The Confederated Tribes of the Goshute recently formed a partnership with a Park City-based company interested in recruiting tribal partners. That ongoing project now provides employment for several families who live on the 122,000-acre reservation that straddles the Utah-Nevada border in rural western Juab County.
“Oftentimes with smaller tribes, a partnership is the route to go,” says Silversmith, who helped introduce the company to Goshute leaders. “If a company comes in and incorporates tribal members to work for them or to be a part of the business, it’s a start.”
A Continued Effort
While optimistic about the gradual progress happening across the state, Silversmith says she recognizes that Utah’s American Indian tribes still face significant challenges in building infrastructure and working toward greater economic self-sufficiency. It will only happen, she says, with a combination of entrepreneurism and continued efforts to increase their visibility among potential investors and partners.
“Government and private organizations and businesses need to look at tribes as an opportunity, to reach out to them and see what the possibilities are,” she says. “I don’t think that a lot of companies or business organizations do that, and I would like to see more of that happening. I feel that if the right company or the right opportunity comes along, there’s a great deal of positive outcomes that can occur with the tribes if they undertake an economic development project within their reservation.”
* The Utah Division of Indian Affairs specifies preference for the term “American Indian” rather than “Native American,” stating: “Technically speaking, anyone born within the boundaries of the continental Unites States is a ‘Native American.’ Therefore, the preferred term is American Indian.”