Native American entrepreneurs making it happen

In the middle is Adrian Manygoats working with entrepreneurs at a local event( Image provided by Adrian Manygoats)
Adrian Manygoats, center, works with entrepreneurs at a local event. (Photo provided by Adrian Manygoats)

FLAGSTAFF — At first glance, it is just another rustic cabin surrounded by Ponderosa pines on the outskirts of town. A closer inspection reveals something else.

Inside, Adrian Manygoats works to help Native American entrepreneurs realize their dreams of owning a small business.

Manygoats is the coordinator for the Native American Business Incubator Network, a Flagstaff-based outreach group that aims to improve Native American entrepreneurship in Arizona.

She is full-blooded Navajo and has a track record of Native American stewardship. She played a critical role in helping establish Elephant Energy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bring affordable energy to the Navajo Nation.

The incubator network, or NABIN, was established in 2005. It is one of many Native American programs run by the Grand Canyon Trust, a Flagstaff-based nonprofit focused on working to protect and restore the Colorado Plateau. According to Manygoats, 95 percent of the network’s funding comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Manygoats assists Native American entrepreneurs when it comes to branding, graphic design, business counseling and marketing.

The network’s mission is to improve the number of Native American businesses owned in the state through social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurship relates to businesses with a goal of bettering the communities they are servicing.

“What all of our businesses have in common is that they want to give back in a positive way,” Manygoats said. “It’s not just about the exchange of goods and services for money. It’s an exchange of knowledge. It’s an exchange of experience.”

She said many native entrepreneurs don’t have the connections to improve their businesses.

“They don’t know how they are going to be able to push their message forward,” Manygoats said. “We help them learn to be a voice for what their trying to accomplish because sometime Native Americans don’t know how to package their business in a way that it is going to be marketable.”

The network consists of eight businesses in the state of Arizona ranging anywhere from film production to agriculture.

The network wants to establish more Native American-owned business in ecotourism.

Tourism on the Navajo Land is a $1.4 billion industry. The Navajo Nation captures fewer than 7 percent of the profit, according to the Grand Canyon Trust.

“There is a large deficit in business ownership for many reasons, but most of them relate to lack of education, cultural obstacles, and a high poverty rate in our community,” Manygoats said.

She added: “This is why NABIN exists. We want to empower people so we can start having a say in what our economies look like and how Native American products are represented.”

The network is just one of the many options that Native American entrepreneurs are using to help establish their own businesses in today’s world.

Bed and Breakfast

Shash Dine Eco Retreat, a Navajo-owned bed-and-breakfast 12 miles south of Page, is one network member breaking into the ecotourism industry.

Baya Meehan, 36, co-owner of Shash Dine with her husband, Paul, is a full-blooded Navajo and a lifelong reservation resident. Her ancestry can be traced back 16 generations.

“This place is steeped in my family history,” she said. “Everyone who lived here was one with the land.”

The couple wanted to create a business close to home and offer an authentic Navajo experience.

“We wanted our guests to see how current Navajo people live, which is much different from an urban setting,” Meehan said.

Shash Dine opened in 2013, but it struggled to pick up a clientele outside the reservation.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about half of all new establishments survive five years or more and about one-third survive 10 years or more.

“ A lot of native entrepreneurs won’t even be able to get their businesses off the ground because of the red tape,” Meehan said.

Tribal government procedures, she said, make it difficult for startups.

“In most places in the city, you can find a place to rent. Once you have paid your money, you can start your own business,” Meehan said. “It’s relatively easy in comparison to the Navajo government.

“You have to build your own place. You have to start from ground zero. You have to get permission to building on a plot of land, arrange for an archeological survey to be done before you can even build.”

Manygoats said many challenges face entrepreneurs on native land. “Having to pay for your own signage, build your electrical lines and telephones. That’s a challenge that Native Americans living on the reservation are dealing with.”

The Eco Retreat has two bell tents and a Hogan, a traditional dwelling place on the reservation of the Navajo people. Shash Dine raises its own livestock. The bed and breakfast also serves common Navajo food like blue corn mush and Navajo fry read.

Last April, the network helped Shash Dine create a new company logo and establish the shashdine.com website. “Just within three weeks of creating the website, the bed-and-breakfast was booked for the whole tourist season that year,” Manygoats said.

Meehan agrees. “It did a lot for our business and really help show our business beyond the reservation.”

Meehan sees herself as an example to aspiring Native American business entrepreneurs. “It is more than possible to live on the reservation and create employment opportunities in the community. If I can do it than anyone can,” she said.

Silversmith

Rick Manuel working on a piece of oval jewelry(Photo by Kofi Akoto / Arizona Sonora News)
Rick Manuel working on a piece of oval jewelry(Photo by Kofi Akoto / Arizona Sonora News)

In the early morning hours, Rick Manuel, 65, hunches over a small desk in his apartment. Light beams on a sheet of 100 percent silver metal as he saws back and forth.

Manuel is a self-taught silversmith. He worked as a carpenter in his early 20s, and learned construction techniques that translated into skills to create jewelry.

Much of his work is inspired by the traditions of the Tohono O’odham nation. He is a member of both the O’odham and Gila River Pima tribes.

Many of Manuel’s pieces incorporate elements of Sonoran Desert landscape.

“There are a lot of basket designs, harvested plants, barrel cactus, creosote  bushes and familiar  mountain ranges,” he said. One of Manuel’s most cherished creations of jewelry is an emblem of the Baboquivari Peak wilderness. It is one of the sacred mountain of the Tohono O’odham tribe.

In his younger years, Manuel used turquoise, coral and shell pieces in metal settings, imitating the work of Northern Arizona tribes such as the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni. “I tried producing the same work they did because I believed that was the market that was what was selling,” he said.

He realized he had made a mistake. His artwork was lost in the hundreds of other artists using the same techniques. “With such steep competition, I couldn’t hold my own,” Manuel said.“I couldn’t make a living at the time and I was just trying to learn as much as possible — when other artists from those tribes were already excellent.”

Tohono O’odham tribal members suggested including his own culture. Respecting their advice, he added symbols of coyote markings and waves associated with his clan.

Not long after, Manuel started to consistently sell his jewelry.

“My relatives and my tribal members bought it because it was ours,” he said. “It was our designs and we were closer to it. They couldn’t find it anywhere else.”

Until he was 16, he sold his work at gem shows and trading posts close to his home on the reservation in Santa Rosa Village. Forty years later, Manuel is now selling on average 30 pieces of jewelry a month for his business at prices from $80 to $5,000 a piece.

For Manuel it’s been a long journey.

“Our people we are very suspicious of outsiders,” he said. “I don’t just let anyone come look at the process behind my work, and I don’t just let anyone sell it. It doesn’t matter what the price for the jewelry is.”

Initially Manuel didn’t have money for tools. “That process took me years to get the tools that I really needed,” he said. “Even to this day, there are tools out there that I don’t have that could help me with my process.”

Manuel desperately needed a ring mandrel, a tool used for shaping and sizing different rings. “If a tool breaks, I will have to use a pipe or a piece of wood to form the jewelry,” he said.

For people on the reservation who are unable to pay for his jewelry, he will trade for services — “you know, mechanic work, house cleaning things like that; even apprentices,” he said.

Manuel also donates some of his jewelry.

“It’s not always about the money,” he said. “It’s about … our values.”

Leonard Marcus assembles herbal medicine (Photo by: Kofi Akoto/ Arizona Sonora News)

Leonard Marcus assembles herbal medicine (Photo by: Kofi Akoto/ Arizona Sonora News)

Herbal Medicine

Leonard Marcus is the CEO of Medicine of the People with his Navajo wife, Virginia Boone Marcus. Medicine of the People offers handmade Navajo herbal remedies to treat a vast array of ailments.

In 2013, they moved their company from Marana to Tucson, selling only three herbal supplements at the time. The company has now expanded to 16 different supplements.

According to Marcus, at the beginning stages of the their business they were selling 20 to 40 tins per month. In 2015, Medicine of the People broke a company record with a single order of 18,000 tins. One of the company’s biggest customers is the Heard Museum in Phoenix. In the last year, the business also created a website to sell its products.

“We have been able to break out of our niche,” Marcus said. “I have not just Native Americans using our products, but I get calls from white people asking if they can come in and buy products.”

Marcus said his company has expanded so much within the past year that he is ready to hire people to help run his day-to-day operations, including a Native American staff to learn the trade of creating herbal products.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the 2013 unemployment rate for Native Americans was 11.3 percent, compared to 6.9 percent for whites. The national average was 7.4 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Statistics.

Marcus believes that employing more Native Americans will give entrepreneurs in the community an opportunity for financial flexibility to create investment opportunities for future businesses.

“With more money circulating through Native American households, we can finally have the opportunity to start funding instead of relying on outside forces for help,” he said.

Kofi Akoto is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at kofiakoto@email.arizona.edu.

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