Native Youth Get Opportunity to See Everything “Out There”

Youth leaders welcome participants to the competition. Photo credit: NCAIED

Youth leaders welcome participants to the competition. Photo credit: NCAIED

It was the chance for Native teens and young adults to see Native entrepreneurs in action. An opportunity to stand before a crowd and present their own innovative ideas. And a unique door-opening to meet role models, explore possibilities and envision a future where they will soon play an active role.

This was the inaugural Native Youth Business Plan Competition at RES 2020, a partnership by First Nations Development Institute and the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development (NCAIED) to engage Native youth in business, leadership, and success, made possible by an investment from the 11th Hour Project of the Schmidt Family Foundation.

“The experience showed me what else there is to offer. For people like me to get off Reservation and see what is out there in the world, it opened up a lot of new opportunities,” said Josh Bushman, a student from Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa whose team took first place in the high school division for their project Coffee Cart: Latte for the Oyate.

A partnership for the future
This was exactly the purpose of the Native Business Plan Competition, which grew out of a collaboration between First Nations and NCAIED to let Native students see up close and personal Native business owners and entrepreneurs excelling and thriving in the world and being given a chance to participate themselves.

Chris James, President and CEO of NCAIED, said bringing the two organizations together to highlight students and their ideas just made sense. “We were blown away with some of the ideas that came out of this competition and hopefully we’ll be able to see some of those ideas turned into businesses. It’s our goal to plant that seed,” James said.

“At First Nations, we’ve been building the court, hanging the backboard and finding the balls and the jerseys, and now it’s time for us to put the players on the court,” said Michael Roberts, president and CEO of First Nations. “This is an opportunity for young people to flex that muscle. And we can move forward and get them into business rather than just talking about it.”

Opportunity by design
The competition process began in 2019 when First Nations put out a call to Native communities inviting Native youth to submit abbreviated business plans for their products or companies. From these applications, five semifinalist teams were selected from each age division (high school and college) to receive additional mentoring from Native business owners, entrepreneurs, and other professionals working in this space to further flesh out their business plans and design. Then, semifinalist teams participated in an on-stage competition held in conjunction with the Reservation Economic Summit (RES), where a team of Native judges and investors decided which business venture they would most likely fund.

RES is a multifaceted event from NCAIED featuring unparalleled access to respected tribal leaders, members of Congress, federal agency representatives, state and local elected officials and top CEOs on a national platform. Here, on day three of the event, youth participants honed their projects through a full lineup of workshops: Business Plan Essentials, Perfecting Your Pitch, Assessing Your Business Plan for the Future, and Accessing Capital & Building Your Budget.

Nine high school and college teams then had five minutes to pitch their ideas and business plans outlining the value of their products and services, operational and technological viability, and capital requirements and financial forecasts, and more during the onstage competition later that evening. Winning teams in each division were awarded cash prizes: $7,500 for first place, $5,000 for second place, and $2,500 for third place.

Participants presented their ideas before a panel of Native leaders and entrepreneurs. Photo credit: NCAIED

Participants presented their ideas before a panel of Native leaders and entrepreneurs. Photo credit: NCAIED

First Nations Senior Program Officer Kendall Tallmadge, who helped organize and facilitate the competition, said all participants, from the applicants to the final winners, should be commended. “These students represent a bright next generation of innovation and excitement. It was an honor to be in a position to hear their ideas and see how they are valuing their culture and heritage through innovative business designs to make a difference in their communities.”

Value beyond dollars

Regardless of prize winnings, the experience the students took away from the competition was priceless, said Prairie Blount, who served as the emcee for the event. “It gave the students exposure to the larger Indigenous world. They were amazed that there are so many Indigenous professionals in business,” she said. “As a student, you’re consumed with your campus. But this gave them an opportunity to step outside and see that we’re all working toward bettering our communities. Others are coming along and paving the way.”

Nate Lee, Vice President of Native American Financial Services for BOK Financial who served as a mentor for the High School team Lumbee Nation Youth Enterprise, said that the value of the experience was enormous. “For the students it was a powerful and rewarding experience to compete on a national stage and also to interact with Native professionals in finance and economics.”

The students agreed:

Josh Bushman, from the Fort Peck Sioux Tribe, said he would 100% recommend the program to his friends. His teammate Antone Manning from Pyramid Lake Paiute added that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience in a unique environment, and that winning was a validation of all his team’s hard work.

Kristall Vega (Cloverdale Pomo), who was on the College first place team, California Indian Museum with their product Acorn Energy Bites, said she loved seeing all the Native youth present on projects they are passionate about to better their communities. “I believe there is a lot of value in experiences like this one because it gives a platform for Native youth to share their voices,” she said.

The Native Youth Business Plan Competition is one of the many ways First Nations invests in Native Youth and gives them opportunities to learn, be mentored, and connect with Native leaders who set an example for collaboration, success and advancement. It’s the type of opportunities that Mentor Nate Lee said are imperative in creating sustained and repeatable financial success in our Native communities. “It must start with our youth, and that includes opportunities to showcase their talents and raise the bar. The future of business is bright for our Native communities as we fill the pipeline of talented and ambitious Native youth, but we must go further to keep that pipeline full by preparing the next class of Kindergartners.”

Indeed, the first-ever Native Youth Business Plan competition will fuel that pipeline, and the 2020 event has built the groundwork for further entrepreneurial opportunities for young people who are ready to explore them.

Advisor Prairie Blount concluded: “These students are the future leaders, who are actually leaders already.”

Participants take home connections, experience and confidence. Photo credit: NCAIED

Participants take home connections, experience and confidence. Photo credit: NCAIED

Investing in Our Roots: Standing Rock Gardening Improves Health & Sovereignty

Standing Rock landscape by Frodo/

Standing Rock landscape by Frodo/

When we look at history, American Indians are often the canary in the mine. When their health goes, it’s a sign of what’s in store for other populations. This is one of the many reasons behind the work of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s Nutrition for the Elderly program. Here, with the support of First Nations, this community is not only protecting that canary by improving Native health but taking active steps to promote food sovereignty.

A food desert

The canary metaphor comes from Petra Harmon One Hawk, director of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Nutrition for the Elderly/Caregiver Support Program, who learned it from her family. For Petra, the call to invest in the nutrition of Standing Rock is both professional and personal. In her role, her goal is to centralize and enhance services for seniors through this comprehensive program to connect the elders with elder abuse prevention programs, nursing facilities, senior center programs, and nutrition services. She is also the Title VI Director for the tribe, which means she leads programs to better meet the needs of older Indians. It is in this capacity where her roots growing up on the reservation, her medical school education, and her master’s degree in Indian Health intersect.

“I was trained to treat patients who have a high rate of diabetes. I learned that all my role was as a future physician was to prescribe them medication and tell them that as long they eat right and exercise, they would be able to manage it,” she explains. “But when I moved home to Standing Rock, I realized how unrealistic that is.”

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is located on 2.5 million acres with three communities on the North Dakota side and five on the South Dakota side. Years ago, to control flooding by the Missouri River, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began building damns, which ultimately created backflow and drowned out Native lands. The Dakota/Lakota People were relocated to higher ground, far above the wildlife, rich soil, and fruit-bearing trees that were washed away. In this new setting, the Dakota/Lakota braved cold weather and barren resources, along with the social trauma of the era that was pervasive throughout Native communities.

Petra explains that returning home after years of schooling was her first realization that Standing Rock was a food desert. She saw the health disparities caused by lack of access to healthy foods and specifically Native foods, which is a requirement of the Older Indians Act.

While Standing Rock had the history and knowledge of how to grow and sustain Native foods, its infrastructure was lost. She says, fighting diabetes was not as easy as eating right and exercising. Access to healthy foods was limited, along with the awareness of the importance of good nutrition in improving health outcomes. Part of Petra’s job has been to rebuild those systems and revive those traditional foods, which calls for not only building that infrastructure but reinvigorating gardening and community as a way of life.

Petra Harmon One Hawk

Petra Harmon One Hawk














Returning to traditions

This is where Petra is serving the elders in the Standing Rock community and also tapping into their knowledge. “They have a collective memory of being self-sufficient,” she explains. “We’ve lost our gardening skills, our cooking skills, and even our taste buds for healthy food. We are now fighting against a system of convenience.”

Older tribal members are helping Petra’s team take on the battle, and one of their weapons is the implementation of the Elder Community Gardens. These gardens are building on a foundation that started in the Cannon Ball community through the Sioux County North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension Office. The Indian Health Service Nutrition Coalition and NDSU Sioux County Extension both have community gardens located at Cannon Ball and Fort Yates. The bounty is shared with schools, the communities, elders, and the Nutrition for the Elderly Program.

While there are other gardens throughout Standing Rock, the Elders Community Gardens Project aims to help elders who want a garden of their own. (They can even create raised-box gardens, which are table height so elders can sit while gardening.) The gardens were created as a direct project of the Nutrition for the Elderly Program both to provide food for the elderly in line with Title VI regulations and to engage the elderly in meaningful work. They also build on other progress at Standing Rock, including the success in returning bison meat to the food packages as part of the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations or FDPIR. Coordination, planning, and implementation of the gardens have been made possible in part through grant funding from First Nations Development Institute.

Pete Red Tomahawk grew up with Petra’s mother and works part-time for the Nutrition for the Elderly Program. He is an enrolled member of Standing Rock and one of the 400 elders in the community. From his perspective, he explains that Elder Community Gardens are not a new approach.

“We’ve always had gardens,” he says. Every family had their own garden. Food was shared, and root cellars were built to preserve and store vegetables. The soil was fertile and getting enough food – and the right kinds of – was not a concern, he says. As a result, folks had very healthy lifestyles, and issues like diabetes, cancer, and health problems were not prevalent.

This knowledge was engrained in Pete’s generation, but it has diminished through the years. The  Elder Community Gardens are bringing it back.

“These are things we learned when we were children in the 1950s,” he says. “Today, we find ourselves as grandparents, trying to teach our younger ones, who I hope will teach their own children.”

Advancing food sovereignty

The Elder Community Gardens have become a key aspect of the infrastructure at Standing Rock, and have laid the groundwork for more outreach, cooking classes, and community involvement. Based on their success, Petra and her team were invited to take part in the Food Sovereignty Summit, co-hosted by First Nations and the nearby Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. There they joined leaders from throughout Indian Country to discuss the disconnect that has occurred between food and Native cultures and beliefs, the holistic role of food, and the need to reconnect with the land.

“As Indians, our food systems are dictated by the Farm Bill and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As a result, our health disparities are catastrophic,” Petra says. “But by working in regard to food sovereignty, we can take back that control.”

It’s control Pete says that had been part of the Native culture. “When we look at what we learned from our parents and grandparents, tribes survived by gardening. As tribes, we know what’s growing and how we can live off the land, “ he says. He credits First Nations for highlighting that knowledge and showcasing it in new ways.

“We’re just starting out, and tribes like Oneida Nation are way ahead,” he says. “But still, we are all advancing, and First Nations is providing the training to tie programs and communities together.”

It is a movement they plan to advance. Beyond the gardens, Standing Rock is looking at more avenues for outreach, nutrition classes, and partnerships for extension programs at institutions like NDSU. Investments are being made in canning practices, irrigation, soil analysis, food storage, and creating an orchard. Youth are being introduced to healthy foods in an effort to reset those lost taste buds. “Our dream is to share this knowledge, so information does not go away as the elderly age,” he says. “We’re looking at that next generation and passing on that way of life. In a metaphorical sense, we are planting that seed.”

In a world that remains vulnerable to legislation, climate change, bias, and upheaval, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is making strides for their elders and for their youth that they hope will offset their risk of diabetes, cancer, and heart issues. They are restoring the role of gardening for nutrition and sustainability. And they are taking to heart that canary in the mine, recognizing that the health and future of all Indians depend on taking back control. 

By Amy Jakober