Native-owned /tribal enterprises still struggling in Minnesota 

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Screenshot of website for Native Food Perspective.

By Lee Egerstrom

Christina (Tina) Valtierra and Robert Blake are living proof the COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a heavy hand on Native-owned and operated businesses this past year.

Valtierra owns and operates Minneapolis-based Native Food Perspectives, a food catering and a food and nutrition education company. This catering business focuses on serving both foods and related cultural information at community events, powwows, ceremonies, weddings, graduations and church events.

All of that crashed beginning in March a year ago when the World Health Organization declared COVID to be an international pandemic. The first infections began showing up in Minnesota at about the same time. Social gatherings for any purpose were discouraged and outright banned for most of the past 12 months.

Blake owns Solar Bear LLC, a Minneapolis solar energy company that was installing solar panels in a renewable energy project at Red Lake Nation government buildings when the pandemic hit. One set of panels was installed but the rest were put in storage while Solar Bear and Red Lake wait out the threat of the virus.

“We couldn’t risk bringing people into Red Lake who might be carriers,” said Blake, who is also a Red Lake tribal member. That could happen; a crew chief for Solar Bear became infected with COVID-19 during the past year.

Valtierra understands that. She, too, has had a bout with the COVID virus. As if that wasn’t enough, she was also treated for cancer in the past year. That is now in remission.
“It’s been a tough year but I’ve gotten through it,” she said. “It wasn’t easy.”

The number of infections in Minnesota is declining, vaccinations are reaching more people, and restraints on doing business are easing as spring takes hold around the state.

That’s promising for business, but there are no guarantees.

A state program and St. Paul-based nonprofit organization, Hunger Solutions Minnesota, came to the rescue when events got cancelled or postponed last year. Native Food Perspectives received a $20,000 Minnesota COVID-19 Food Fund grant from Hunger Solutions that was part of $12 million the organization distributed to food shelves, feeding programs and related activities throughout the state.

This grant program is a Hunger Solutions partnership with the Minnesota Department of Human Services and various Minnesota foundations that support hunger relief organizations, recognizing there are rising needs due to the pandemic.

It lifted her spirits “and kept the lights on,” Valtierra said. “I really am optimistic now that business will pick up in the next month or two.”

But for many Native American small businesses and entrepreneurs, it will be too little, too late.

A survey of minority entrepreneurs in the Upper Midwest by the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank at the start of this year found minority businesses were in greater financial danger than businesses in general.

Sixty percent of owners reported fourth-quarter revenue was lower in 2020 than for the same quarter of 2019. A majority said the decline was greater than 25 percent.

“Their expectations for first-quarter revenue this year in comparison to last are considerably pessimistic; 51 percent of firms expect their income to be lower than in 2020 and here, too, most estimate declines were greater than 25 percent,” wrote Erick Garcia Luna, the Minneapolis Fed’s regional outreach director and author of the study.

Luna found that 37 percent of the minority businesses surveyed said it would be difficult to stay in business in the first half of this year unless economic conditions improve. One respondent said it would be impossible to stay in business for three months with existing economic conditions.

It isn’t just independent entrepreneurs in Indian Country who are struggling with COVID impacts on business. Tribal governments and tribally owned enterprises, closely tied to the hospitality and entertainment industries, have seen tribal revenue slashed as casinos and entertainment ventures closed and people stayed safe at home during the past year.

Shelley Buck, president of the Prairie Island Indian Community; and Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe near Seattle, said at a Minneapolis Fed webinar on March 24 that their tribal governments have dipped into “rainy day” funds as revenues fell.

This is a common practice for tribes in their areas, they said. Buck serves as vice chairwoman for the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and Forsman is board chair for the regional Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians.

The Fed’s Center for Indian Country Development (CICD) hosted the webinar to explore how tribes are coping financially with the pandemic (see link below). The significance of tribal financial health is that tribal leaders must continue to provide service to their communities, a greater task than just keeping an enterprise or enterprises afloat during a crisis.

Multiple purposes affect individual business operators within the Native communities as well. Both Valtierra and Blake have educational missions aligned with their businesses that stress health and well-being for their customers and friends.

Blake operates Native Sun, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that promotes renewable energy, energy efficiency and “a just energy transition through education, workforce training and demonstration,” he said.

“We have tribes depending on energy from outside and we should be making it ourselves,” he said. “The sun shines for us. The wind blows for us. This (renewable energy) is the future for our people and we can do it right.”

Valtierra’s Native Food Perspectives is also education focused. In preparing and presenting food for groups, she stresses the health benefits of fresh, organic and traditional Indigenous ingredients and cuisine. Diabetes and heart disease are especially prominent diseases within Native communities. They also affected her family and ancestors.

She grows and harvests vegetables, medicinal crops and herbs at urban gardens. She is especially involved with Mashkiikii Gitigan (Medicine Garden), on Indian Health Board (1315 E. 24th St.) property that encourages local organic food production, healthy eating and healthy living for people in Minneapolis’ Phillips Neighborhood.

The garden is operated by 24th Street Urban Farm Coalition. It is comprised of staff members from Indigenous Peoples’ Task Force, Native American Community Clinic, Waite House, Ventura Village, Women’s Environmental Institute, the Indian Health Board and Dream of Wild Health. Valtierra previously worked and trained at the Dream of Wild Health Native foods group.

The Minnesota Department of Health offers information for business owners and employers on coping with COVID at https://www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/coronavirus/businesses.html and small business resources at https://mn.gov/covid19/business-orgs/resources/small-business.jsp.

U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) programs to assist small businesses with COVID can be found at https://www.sba.gov/funding-programs/loans/covid-19-relief-options/covid-19-economic-injury-disaster-loan and https://www.sba.gov/funding-programs/loans/covid-19-relief-options/paycheck-protection-program.

Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) programs to assist small businesses can be found at https://mn.gov/deed/business/financing-business/deed-programs/emergency-programs/.

The Center for Indian Country Development at the Minneapolis Federal Bank’s Webinar, cited in the story, can be views at https://www.minneapolisfed.org/events/2021/how-are-tribal-economies-faring-amidst-the-covid-19-pandemic. The Erick Garcia Luna article is available at https://www.minneapolisfed.org/article/2021/highlighting-covid-19s-impact-on-minority-owned-firms.