Tribal Businesses On Cusp Of Change
Oregon's Native American tribes are well known for their casinos. What's less recognized is how tribes use their sense of place to start new businesses, and the diversity of those ventures.
At Takelma Roasting Company in Roseburg, they process coffee beans in 20 pound batches. Kyle Kennington is one of the founders. He says the company launched in the summer of 2017:
Kennington: “Myself plus three make up all of Takelma Roasting. So in the last year we took on that 30 or so thousand pounds and added another 10 in external customers ... so we're doing a pretty good volume of coffee for a small Douglas County roaster.”
The starting capital for the business came from an uncommon source: the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indian's casino, Seven Feathers. Michael Rondeau is Cow Creek's CEO. He says they view Seven Feathers' profits as seed money:
Rondeau: “The gaming was an economic engine that allowed tribes, specifically our tribe, to become engaged in other types of businesses.”
Casinos have helped all nine of Oregon's recognized tribes create jobs and provide services. Tribes are sovereign governments; their independence is spelled out in the U.S. Constitution. Their economies differ from the mainstream in a couple of ways. One is geographic.
Schulz-Oliver: “We're not going to go anywhere, so if there's a competitive advantage somewhere else, that's probably not an opportunity that we'll look into.”
Amber Schulz-Oliver is Executive Director of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians Economic Development Corporation, which helps 57 area tribes grow their economies. She says another big difference is that tribal businesses are not primarily focused on profit:
Schulz-Oliver: “Most tribes don't view simply the accumulation of wealth as a basis of our economies. Profit is important but equally important are factors like culture, environmentalism and tribal member happiness.”
A community-first, location-based sense permeates Cow Creek's companies. Nathan Jackson is a General Manager at K-bar Ranch, its 55-hundred acre agricultural arm. He says they focus on service to the tribe...
Jackson: “That we are taking care of noxious weeds, that we're looking out for wildlife and fish, that we are making sure that we manage at appropriate levels so that we're not eating our resource into the dirt, that we're not doing something that is going to cause excessive erosion.”
He says K-Bar is like a family ranch, but the family is about 18-hundred people.
Twenty-five years after the first casino opened in the state, Oregon's tribes have a foundation to build on. They don't want to rely solely on gambling, which is subject to economic swings and possible market saturation. Stewart Brannen is CEO of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz' Tribal Business Corporation.
Brannen: “Gaming is very important, but it's not going to be the end all and be all for the tribe down the road.”
He says the Siletz lean toward real estate opportunities on the coast:
Brannen: “We're looking at developing lots that are adjacent to our 18-hole golf course. We've got 70 acres, then on the Yaquina River down in Toledo that we're taking a serious look at as to potentially develop a housing plan down there.”
The Umatilla have run Coyote Business Park since the 1990s, with tenants including a software developer and call center. The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs have a drone testing site as well as a fire-rated door manufacturer. Amber Schulz-Oliver is excited to see tribes differentiate from each other.
Schulz-Oliver: “I think we're really on the cusp of something interesting. We're seeing tribes have more influence, we're seeing tribes enjoy a little bit more capital in the communities. I don't know what that's going to look like yet but I just can't wait to see how that all flushes out over the next 5, 10, 15 years.”
She says no one would have predicted the changes in the past 10 years, and now each group can build a future that works for them.
Nathan Jackson says K-Bar has grown grains other than hay and:
Jackson: “Where we are on the South Umpqua, we have the climate to grow some olives, and it's something that we've taken a couple of years and have really looked at.”
Takelma's Kyle Kennington says the Development Corporation has looked into beer and wine as potential products.
Kennington: “Really the sky's the limit. It's one of those things that we're constantly adapting and diversifying and exploring what makes sense for us as a tribe and as a business entity.”
He says Takelma coffee hopes to reach specialty stores by the first of the year. While the company has expanded quickly since its first brew, Kennington notes they want to remain a micro-roaster.
Funding for KLCC's "Borders, Migration, and Belonging" series is provided by the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics and the University of Oregon.