Navajo nonprofit taps into kinship to grow Native American-owned businesses
Of the millions of businesses in the U.S., just 1 percent are owned by Native Americans. A nonprofit of the Navajo Nation has started a unique business incubator to foster economic development without losing Indigenous ways of thinking. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports, Change Labs works not through a mindset of growth, but one of kinship.
On a cattle ranch owned by the Navajo Nation, Leander Guy Thomas hammers horseshoes into shape on an anvil for two horses named Spitz and Thumper. They need fresh shoes every six weeks: "Just like going to the barber, getting your monthly haircut," Thomas says.
Thomas is one of the only farriers at work in Northern Arizona and he travels for miles to see his four-footed clients. It’s an old school skill but he’s in high demand. "It’s a dying breed, you know. No one wants to do it no more, you know?" he says.
He’s training his brother-in-law as an apprentice, teaching him not just the blacksmithing but also traditional ways of getting a horse in balance. "Just get the horse in tune with nature," Thomas says. "There’s a lot of cultural significance that is built in within the horse; if you pick up the feet there and look at the frog there, in our tradition they say that’s part of an arrowhead."
Thomas was taught those traditions and his skills growing up on the Navajo Nation, but he didn’t know how to turn it into a business until he enrolled in a yearlong crash course run by Change Labs. The nonprofit was founded in 2019 by Heather Fleming, who says it’s uphill work to get silversmiths, sheepherders, and others with traditional skills to see themselves as small business owners.
"In Navajo we don’t have a direct word or concept for ‘entrepreneur’ or ‘business.’ I think that’s part of the challenge; that when we talk about these things, we talk about in the context that it’s something we’re borrowing from another culture," Fleming explains.
Specifically, from Silicon Valley, where Fleming moved when she was eighteen. She started a company there, swept up in ideals of fast growth and high revenue.
"When I came back to the reservation, initially, I brought all those concepts and ideas with me, and I was frustrated by how slow everything moved, so slow."
But then she began to feel Silicon Valley could learn something from the Native way of doing business, where bonds of kinship matter more than the bottom line. "Success isn’t necessarily defined by how much money you make," she says. "Instead, we look at metrics like the impacts that we have on our communities and community wellbeing."
Change Labs offers aspiring business owners what Fleming calls “culturally relevant support,” like loans that don’t require background or credit checks and workshops on how to file taxes.
A study commissioned by Change Labs found on Navajo land, it takes seven times as long to start a business and costs twice as much as it does off the reservation. Racquel Black, Change Lab’s coworking manager, says, "It’s a really hindering process, it’s a really a daunting process, especially if the steps to get that down aren’t completely clear."
Black shows off a brand-new building in Tuba City called the Entrepreneurship Hub. It's got a conference room, Internet, a printer, electricity, and water, all things in short supply on the Navajo Nation. "We want to be a safe space for people who have entrepreneurial aspirations, for them to be able to come here and ask the questions they wouldn’t necessarily ask someone else," Black explains.
More than sixty Navajo, Hopi, and Salt River Pima have come through the business incubator program, among them Crystal Dugi, who turned to art after receiving a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. "I chose painting because it was something that didn’t require any practice yet," she says. "It was something I could do just comfortably and follow my own guidance, and it blossomed into what I have now."
Happiness is her metric for success, and enough income to pay for her bills and medication. She says she’s achieved that by auctioning her art on Facebook and dreams of opening a gallery someday.
"There’s no pressure to become a multi-million dollar company in so many years. The goal is to get there as a business. The goal is a mutual community of businesses to come together and create a network of people that are going to be successful," she says.
A network of people that don’t have to leave Native land to find work, but can stay and run businesses of their own, walking a path that goes back for generations.