Toward a Native economics: Two young Navajos seek community-oriented business models

Published in Indian Country Today in October 2005.

There’s intense pressure nowadays to improve the economic situation on reservations,” said Roberto Nutlouis, Navajo. “It’s called progress. But everything the government does to make this happen is killing the local economies that do exist. Even building grocery stores ends up undermining the local food economy.”

He explains that when the federal government constructs a supermarket, people are drawn there by the cheap, heavily sprayed, trucked-in vegetables, and they stop buying wholesome traditional varieties from their neighbors’ gardens. More and more people end up eating food that is neither safe nor culturally appropriate, while money is siphoned off from the reservation. “When the government tries to help Indians, it just kills us,” Nutlouis said.

While I spoke to Nutlouis, a 24-year-old graduate of the Applied Indigenous Studies Department of Northern Arizona University (NAU), he was chopping squash and scraping corn — both locally grown — with Valencia Herder, Navajo, a student in the same program. The two were making succotash for a community meal in the Chapter House in Leupp, Arizona. Both Herder and Nutlouis wear many hats — working with elders, youth groups and grassroots rights organizations, as well as creating community gardens under the auspices of NAU’s Healing Gardens and Fields project, which was sponsoring the gathering.

As Nutlouis and Herder cooked, they talked about the need for Indian-country economies that take into consideration local cultures and their needs. Both felt it was important to support communities as a whole, as well as the people within them. They didn’t envision a future in which individual Navajos had been turned into small-business owners, isolated within their own enterprises and operating independently of their neighbors. That would be the corporate model, and thus foreign to their culture, they agreed. Instead, they sought ways to create vibrant local economies that supported traditional kinship structures.

Nutlouis suggested that barter should be part of a healthy reservation economy. “It’s our traditional system,” he said. “A rancher has cows or sheep, a farmer has produce. They trade. How do we get back to that? Native people have to look to all the business models and come up with one that is unique to us.”

Herder noted that local products must overcome many obstacles to become established, even in their own areas. First, they face competition from large stores — and not just supermarkets. She pointed out that Wal-mart and Home Depot are trying to establish themselves on reservations countrywide, and that operations of this size can easily undercut the price of a huge range of locally produced goods.

Nutlouis agreed, adding that a second hurdle is convincing Native people that their goods have any value at all. “Years of the government devaluing and demonizing Native culture has had a terrible impact. We’ve been told you’re backward, you’re crazy. So we have to give community members a sense of the value of what they make,” he said.

Yet a third hurdle, according to Herder, is the difficulty of contacting off-reservation markets for goods that might be perceived as luxury items and thus demand a high price. “There is a good market for Churro wool, particularly when dyed with vegetable dyes, but it’s controlled by non-Natives who buy it here then sell it over the Internet,” she said. “The Navajo producers don’t have computers — they may not even have electricity — so they can’t access those markets themselves.” To resolve this dilemma, the Chapter House in Hard Rock, Arizona, where Herder lives, is currently working with a consulting group to figure out how to find people who are willing to pay well for a natural, hand-made product like Churro wool.

Export isn’t the only answer, said Herder: “After years of colonization, we’ve been given the idea that we must export our resources. Why can’t we use them in our communities?”

Even education has created obstacles for Native economies, since it typically prepares children to leave the reservation, not to stay. “Education causes a real brain drain,” said Nutlouis. “And often when educated people do stay in the community, they have dominant society values. Their skills and experiences don’t work here, because we have a different way of doing things. Sometimes, the educated ones even become oppressors.”

Herder suggested that the goals of getting an education might be transformed. “People always tell children to go to school and become a doctor or a lawyer. Why not tell them to go to school and become a farmer?” she asked.

Finding help to put these ideas into motion is difficult. “We’re so dependent on the federal government, and its end goal is always assimilation,” said Nutlouis. “It doesn’t encourage a rich tradition and sacred knowledge. As an alternative, we’re trying to tap into nonprofits and foundations — in other words, non-governmental, non-assimilating entities. Of course, they come with their own problems. What we do is holistic, and a foundation will say they only do youth, or they only do environmental justice, whereas for us all these things are linked. We do everything. So you have to explain to them.”

In the end, said Herder, the solution is where it has always been: “It’s up to us.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photograph by Stephanie Woodard.