New chamber focuses on Native businesses

Sixteen states, including Alaska, join to promote economic development

Posted: Tuesday, August 13, 2002

WASHINGTON - American Indian businessmen from 16 states have created a nationwide chamber of commerce promoting economic development among the historically disadvantaged group.

"We want to empower the Native American and Alaska Native," Michael Harwell, spokesman for the new U.S. American Indian Chamber of Commerce, said Monday. "We want to be a force and we want to level the playing field for this group."

The number of businesses owned by American Indians grew by 84 percent and increased their revenues by 179 percent from 1992 to 1997, the most recent figures available from the Commerce Department, but fewer than 1 percent of businesses nationwide were owned by Indians.

Business development in Indian Country is generally hampered by a lack of investment capital and inadequate training and education, especially in terms of technology.

The Commerce Department is assisting in the creation of the new chamber of commerce. It provided start-up money for the organization and plans to offer technical and financial assistance to Indian businesses and including chamber representatives on international trade missions, said Selma Sierra, an adviser in the department's Minority Business Development Agency.

The hope is to reproduce the successes of the American Indian Chamber of Commerce is modeled after the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which Sierra said has become a powerful advocate for Hispanic-owned businesses.

Other minority groups in the country also have a national chamber of commerce.

"We feel this is an opportunity to participate and to give back to the culture," said Harwell, a member of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe. He owns a public relations firm in Dallas and is president of the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of Texas.

In 1997, there were 197,300 Indian-owned businesses employing 298,700 people and generating $34.3 billion in revenues, according to the Commerce Department.

California has the most Indian-owned businesses with 26,600. Alaska had the highest concentration with 11 percent of businesses owned by its native population. Oklahoma and New Mexico each exceeded 5 percent.

The group met in Albuquerque, N.M., Monday and will announce its formation Tuesday evening. The initial planning meeting, which included representatives from 10 state Indian chambers of commerce, was held in May. Since then, six new states have joined.

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