New rules for Buy Indian Act take effect May 9

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Kay Bills has pushed Congress, the federal departments of government, and others over the years to open doors and support programs for Native entrepreneurship. (Photo courtesy of Kay Bills.)

By Lee Egerstom

The U.S. Interior Department published final rules in April for its Buy Indian Act regulations, bringing closer to an end a process underway for about 20 years aimed at boosting business for tribal and Native-owned businesses.

The rules go into effect on May 9. They are intended to promote economic opportunities in and near tribal communities, said Interior’s Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Bryan Newland. “This is a key part of our goal to make sure that Indian people have the opportunity to live safe, healthy and fulfilling lives in their tribal communities,” he said.

“It’s here! The Buy Indian Act is a fact of life,” said Kay Bills, an Osage Nation member in Oklahoma who has been pushing for a workable form of the legislation for more than two decades.

A former U.S. Department of Commerce official in Washington promoting Native enterprises, and a former entrepreneur herself in Alaska, Bills has pushed Congress, the federal departments of government, and others over the years to open doors and support programs for Native entrepreneurship.

She and Pamela Standing, executive director of the Minnesota Indigenous Business Alliance (MNIBA), prepared a background “white paper” for American Indian and Alaska Native organizations in 2015 on the developing programs.

Bills has devoted her life to helping get Indian business rules and regulations authorized and functioning, Standing said.

“She is an amazing Osage woman who has tirelessly fought this battle for years and has been committed to educating our leaders, community members and businesses on how to implement this law,” Standing said.

Her work and that of tribal and nonprofit Indian group leaders across the nation with government officials has been paying off.

The Interior Department announcement noted that the updated Indian Community Economic Enhancement Act of 2020 prioritized support for federally registered Indian Economic Enterprises (IEEs). This led to $280 million in federal spending with Native-owned businesses when in 2018, for instance, there was $85.4 million in Buy Indian Act federal purchases.

  • The new rules also align Interior’s Indian Affairs programs with Department of Health and Human Services Indian Health Service (IHS) for local contracting.
    Interior explained the purpose of the regulation changes this way:
    • Eliminate barriers to Indian Economic Enterprises (IEEs) from competing on certain construction contracts.
    • Expand IEE abilities to subcontract construction work consistent with other socio-economic set-aside programs, and
    • Give greater preference to IEEs when a deviation from the Buy Indian Act is necessary, among other updates.

The proof – or carry through – is always in the pudding.
In the past, Bills said, Congress has sometimes authorized versions of the act and then failed to appropriate money for the Interior Department and its Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to carry it out. In other times, responsibility for promoting Indian businesses were placed in the Commerce Department with other programs designed to help minority businesses.

The final rules may still need tweaking going forward, she said. She is especially concerned there may be built in barriers for entrepreneurs working from homes – both on and off reservation lands – to getting registered to qualify for government contracting.

Federal programs require contractors to be registered through a System for Award Management, or SAM.gov registration, that identifies them for different federal programs. In the Buy Indian Act program, SAM registration will identify the contactor as a tribal enterprise or an individual Native American entrepreneur.

There is a problem with the way this is designed, Bills said.

People working from home, such as freelance service providers, have trouble getting this designation. And, would-be entrepreneurs living on a reservation, she said, would have a home address the government would consider a tribal location and not the address for a private Native enterprise.

“I can rent an office somewhere in town, and that would get me an approved address. But a lot of people working from home wouldn’t have the ability to do that,” she said.

This goes far beyond the Native American community, Bills added. There has been a great shift in who and where people work during the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Much more work is being “farmed out” to work-at-home entrepreneurs.

Meanwhile, with the new rules for Buy Indian Act, the Interior Department expects federal Indian Affairs purchases from Native businesses to climb from 59 percent currently to 65 percent, or to $325 million flowing annually into Indian Country.

In addition, Indian Affairs said it will solicit proposals from Native-owned construction businesses for $1.5 billion in new nationwide contracts that will cover a range of Interior projects.

Near-term opportunities available for Indian-owned businesses will include professional service contracts for program management, consultant services, business support services, dam and irrigation construction, and architect and engineering services totaling approximately $750 million dollars.

That could give a big boost to Native-owned enterprises in Minnesota. Standings’ MNIBA group has an online business directory of indigenous-owned and operated businesses at https://www.mniba.org/programs/business-directory.html. It includes enterprises in all of the Interior Department’s identified business categories, including 20 Minnesota-based Native construction firms.

Here are sources for more information on the Buy Indian Act and how to qualify for contracting with federal agencies: