Attorney Little Fawn Boland has worked exclusively with indigenous tribes for the past 14 years: "My community, the native community, needs infrastructure and economic development, education, employment, businesses, affordable housing, and healthcare. When people ask me what I do, I tell them, 'I work for families.'"
"On a very human level, it’s looking each other in the eye. It’s not just seeing the balance sheet and checking the box when you are working in Indian Country," says attorney Little Fawn Boland.
Well before the United States was a nation, Native Americans have been part of the identity of our country. The historic connection between America and American Indians runs deep, but has been marred by battles over land, tribal sovereignty, economics, and race.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day, celebrated this year on Oct. 14, recalls the history, culture, and living legacies of the Taíno peoples that Christopher Columbus encountered on Oct. 12, 1492. It’s also a chance to heal and consider the perspectives and promise of contemporary Native Americans.
Little Fawn Boland is an attorney who has been working exclusively on behalf of indigenous tribes for 14 years. "My community, the native community, needs infrastructure and economic development, education, employment, businesses, affordable housing, and healthcare. When people ask me what I do, I tell them, 'I work for families,'" she said.
Lance Morgan graduated from Harvard Law School and returned home to Nebraska to launch Ho-Chunk, Inc., an economic development corporation of the Winnebago Tribe. "I learned the hard way that in a poor community you have to do everything," he said. "We have seven generations of real abject poverty. Clawing out of that requires you to look at some core problems and apply a little bit of money, structure, and hard work to make things better. Our job is to maximize good."
Morgan and his team seek to create job opportunities and long-term economic self-sufficiency for tribal members. "What we don’t do is just give out money," he said. "We create an environment or system where people can be successful if they do their part."
Eddie Sherman, board president, and James Parker, director of operations, Oregon Native American Chamber, discuss the opportunities of entrepreneurship for their families and community.
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For those working with underserved and neglected communities, the job involves channeling investments where funding is most needed. Chrystel Cornelius promotes investments in, for, and with indigenous communities. Through the years she has seen traditional lenders approach "under-banked" indigenous communities with little regard for the improvements people who live in these communities most want to see. Even worse, she has watched native communities become targets of predatory lenders.
"When you’re working with any type of marginalized community, you may see individuals willing to help, but it’s always about what you can do to or for us, rather than what you can do with us," said Cornelius, executive director, First Nations Oweesta Corporation.
Purposeful collaboration that reaches deep into the community and includes its homegrown entrepreneurs has the potential to spur economic development on tribal lands. The role Opportunity Zones could play to encourage long-term investment and job creation in low-income areas, brought Boland, Morgan, and Cornelius to sessions in Kansas City to explore the impact new and innovative approaches might have on the well-being of residents and the health of their communities.
Building trust at the outset is key to aligning capital with the community’s interests and priorities. Those relationships take time, notes Boland. "It’s about listening and being willing to come back multiple times. It’s typically a six-month timetable to get a vote. If you expect a decision overnight, that’s not going to work for most tribal communities."
"On a very human level, it’s looking each other in the eye," Boland said. "It’s not just seeing the balance sheet and checking the box when you are working in Indian Country."
The bond between tribes and those interested in their success can be strengthened by being aware of a community’s culture and customs. "Having that understanding is really valuable," said Boland. "It could be knowing something about our dances, how we make the regalia, or knowing that a feast day is coming and being aware or our obligations to our family around that time."
While traditions can be traced back through generations, those working in native communities note that indigenous people are not mired in the past. Boland sees more women being elected to leadership roles on tribal councils, and Morgan is quick to dispel notions that native communities won’t welcome outsiders.
"I think people can get nervous about making cultural mistakes," Morgan said. "I would tell them to relax a little bit. If you’re coming to help, it’s hard to offend us."
Boland is also eager to dispel misconceptions associated with native communities. "There’s really just a lot of misinformation about tribes," she said. "One is that the people on the other side of the table are ignorant. No, we’ve been doing great things for hundreds of years. We’re not starting from scratch. We have very successful tribes across the United States."
Ultimately, Boland wants potential investors to see the promise of Native Americans. "I want people who are thinking about deploying capital to take a closer look at native communities. We know how to navigate the process. We’re sovereigns. We govern ourselves. We’re in the driver’s seat. We can make things happen."
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