This month America celebrates Native American Heritage Month with a host of online and in-person events, covering historic issues, culture and modern politics affecting the country’s 562 tribes.
The problems facing Native American communities are acute: one in three of the United States’ approximately 2.9m Native Americans live in poverty, with a median income of $23,000 (according to the US Census, the nationwide median is $33,700).
Up to Only five percent of the country’s 50m acres of reservations is privately-owned, meaning Native Americans face uphill challenges to get a foothold in the economy. Crime and drug abuse also affect Native Americans at far higher levels than the rest of the population.
Gaming has traditionally been one path to economic prosperity for tribes across the country. Yet in 2015 casinos created an average of just 25 jobs each, according to data collected by Northwestern University sociologist Beth Redbird. That’s of little effect to a reservation with over 2,000 residents.
Entrepreneurship is, therefore, one way to sidestep a broken system. Groups such as Native Startup have placed a stronger emphasis on self-made businesses as a way out of economic hardship. Its team, based out of its Change Labs in Tuba City AZ, has helped 27 Navajo and Hopi-owned startups get off the ground, in a Navajo Nation the Economist once called “capitalism’s last frontier.”
The following three entrepreneurs have broken that frontier in style.
Aqiwo means “star,” or “light” in the Chumash language, a tribe native to southern California. Established in 2002 by self-proclaimed “Indianpreneur” Stephen Mills, the Virginia-based firm has built a solid client base among the US Government’s intelligence, defense and civilian agencies with its four lines of solutions: IT support, admin support, planning and project management, and cybersecurity.
Sipco was grown out of StatSignal in 1993 by David Petite to cover wireless mesh network protocols. The Herndon, Virginia company made an early name integrating systems with the Internet—a first-mover IoT firm—with wireless applications.
It was soon one of the first to use the Internet as a “derived channel for data back-haul and data aggregation points for life safety, fire and burglary signals, and many other applications,” says its website. It has since developed solutions in digital car parking, HVAC systems and SOS security, among other verticals.
Oklahoma’s Symbiotic Aquaponic was founded out of a need to build sustainable food production pipelines and reconnect with nature. Brothers Kaben and Shelby Smallwood, members of the Choctaw Nation, began with a trial project in southeastern Oklahoma before growing their aquaponic solution out successfully enough that in 2013 the Hitachi Foundation awarded it a $40,000 social entrepreneurship prize.
Now the brothers grow various fruits, herbs and vegetables, maintain fisheries and teach local students how to farm efficiently and sustainably. To date it has built over 100 projects in seven US states, helped by a $199,000 2018 grant from the USDA. “It’s incredible to use our aquaponic technology like we intended from the start to benefit other Tribes and underserved populations in our own backyard,” Kaben told Native Business Magazine earlier this year.