Reagan tries to give boost to US Indian businessmen

Indian entrepreneurs, President Reagan wants you!

To offset major cuts in federal programs on US Indian reservations--at least partially--the administration hopes to encourage Native American enterprises and assist tribal governments in efforts to lure more corporations into Indian Country.

It's a straw that many tribal leaders--faced with stratospheric unemployment rates of 60 percent and more--appear willing to grasp. At least attendance at a seminar entitled ''Indian Economic Development: Survival in the 1980s'' held here March 30 and 31 exceeded the wildest expectations of its organizers at the American Indian National Bank (AINB).

''Last time I spoke at a meeting on this subject I brought a suitcase full of annual reports and only seven people showed up. Today I brought 75 and over 300 people are here,'' chuckled B. G. Richmond, general manager of the Devils Lake Sioux Manufacturing Company, a joint venture between the Devils Lake Sioux Tribe and the Brunswick Corporation in North Dakota.

''It's a new beginning: a time of change. With the help of financial planners and business leaders we can begin to move away from dependency,'' the representatives of more than 75 of the nation's 280-odd tribes were told by Kenneth L. Smith, assistant secretary of Indian affairs at the Department of the Interior. As general manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon, the dapper Mr. Smith presided over one of a handful of Indian economic success stories of the sort the administration intends to encourage.

In the past, easily available federal money led to the funding of unsound economic development plans that quickly failed. These hurt Indians' reputations and self-images, as well as stole their credibility with the business community, Smith asserts. ''That time is past and we should not regret it,'' he adds.

The administration has asked Congress for $10 million in 1983 to help tribes attract private money for economic development, he explains. To qualify for this money projects will have to meet a number of tough tests. Tribal leaders must be willing to risk tribal money, something they have been reluctant to do in the past because of the political repercussions if the money is lost. Bureau of Indian Affairs officials and an independent review board of businessmen must be convinced of the soundness of a proposed venture. And the tribal government must have demonstrated enough stability to ensure that they will stick with a project once it is started.

''This isn't going to balance out the short-term economic difficulties which the tribes are facing,'' Smith acknowledges. ''But in the long term it will be much better,'' he maintains.

''The possibilities are endless,'' Conley Ricker, chief executive officer of the Indian-owned AINB, says enthusiastically. Mr. Ricker, a Virginia banker, was hired several years ago because the Indian bank was financially distressed. He has since restructured its operations, and recent annual reports show the AINB in an increasingly strong financial position. ''We're actively looking for economic development projects to support,'' he explains.

''Believe me, Indians will work!'' says Brunswick's Mr. Richmond. ''Oh, I can tell you horror stories from our first couple of years. But absenteeism is no longer in our language,'' reports the manufacturer of camouflage material for the Department of Defense.

His experience directly contradicts stereotypes that Indians are lazy and undependable. Yet forward-looking tribal leaders realize that they must overcome these stereotypes if they are to attract outside business. So part of the purpose of the AINB seminar was to expose the banking community to Indian economic success stories like that of the Choctaws, who managed to attract two major firms to their Mississippi reservation, in hopes that the bankers will be more supportive of similar efforts.

''The biggest obstacle is going through the analysis to prove to a company that it is in their economic interest and in yours that they locate on the reservation,'' says Earnest Tiger, the Choctaw tribe's director of economic development.

''It sounds so wonderful, but it's so frustrating,'' sighs Tillie Walker from Fort Bertold.

Unlike the Cochtaws, many tribes have worked hard to attract economic development without notable success. In some cases this has been because the tribes have had difficulty divorcing business from tribal politics. But there are other obstacles beyond the Indians' control, explains Morey Roller, an accountant with Deloitte, Haskin, and Sells, which has had considerable experience in this area. ''There are a lot of legal questions. For instance, there is no body of business law (like the Uniform Commercial Code) that applies on reservations. Also, there is a great deal of uncertainty on the tax situation. As a result, businesses who are going to reservations are running extra risks,'' Mr. Roller explains.

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