Indigenous cooperative development training launched in MN


By Lee Egerstrom

A program to help train Native Americans capable of developing cooperative businesses and service enterprises has been launched in Minnesota, drawing potential developers and training talent from across “Turtle Island.”

Leading the effort locally is Pamela Standing, co-executive director of programs and partnerships at Minnesota Indigenous Business Alliance (MNIBA), with partners from various tribal and cooperative groups in the U.S. and Canada.

The cooperative model of jointly operating businesses and service providing organization isn’t widely used by Indigenous tribes and organizations in America, said Standing. That, she considers, is unfortunate.

“Cooperation is built into our culture,” said Standing, a member of the Cherokee Nation. “It always has been. Sharing and caring is so ingrained we don’t even have words describing ‘democracy’ in the (Native) languages that I know about,” she said. “Before we were colonized, we took care of each other.”

Armed with a graduate degree in international business, Standing says the relatively small use of cooperative business models by Native groups overlooks the long history of trading and tribal cooperation carried out among Indigenous people.

The mere use of “Turtle Island” to describe North America within Native languages bears that out, she said.

That is also consistent with cooperative business literature used in Europe and North America. It traces cooperative relationships back to the Silk Road, or, more accurately, the Silk Routes, protecting trade caravans between China and Europe for 1,500 years across much of Asia and the Middle East.

The project to inspire cooperative developers here came about from within the same historical perspective. The Cooperative Development Foundation (CDF), started by mostly agricultural cooperatives in the 1940s with an initial goal of helping rebuild war-torn Europe (and the originators of CARE), invited Standing and the MIBA to partner in a Native Community Cooperative Developers training program.

The CDF secured funds through the Native American Agriculture Fund. The latter was created by the 2010 settlement of Keepseagle v. Vilsack, a class action suit that found the U.S. Department of Agriculture had discriminated against Native American farmers in loan programs going back to 1981.

In turn, MNIBA reached out to other partners to bring together trainers and potential developers.

The main partners in the effort include Bjiibah Begay, executive director of the Cooperative Catalyst of New Mexico organization and member of Coalmine Mesa of the Navajo Nation; Trista Pewapisconias, director of Indigenous Relations for Co-operatives First, a co-op development support group based in Saskatchewan; along with Standing and MNIBA.

They formed a Native work group to identify major elements needed for developers to work within their communities and fill voids they currently see in what they call a “euro-centric approach” to co-op development.

A curricula has taken shape around helping developers work within their own cultures, not a “pan-Indian type model,” and to help developers build their work around their communities’ “cultural lifeways and values,” Standing said.

From that base of building on trust and relationships, she said, the curriculum moves on techniques for building abundance within their communities. Leaders in that effort are Karri-Lynn Paul and Brianne Peters, Indigenous and international community development faculty at the Coady International Institute at St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia.

They have produced a manual offering a good starting point for what the Native Community Cooperative Developers program intends to achieve going for- ward, Standing said. It identifies “Seven Principles of Community Building in Indigenous Communities” based on research in Canada tracking community development.

It covers a variety of community building aspects, starting from the concept that each Indigenous person has gifts and values for the community. It also keys off something Standing witnessed as a lesson from an Indigenous community leader at a training session.

That person handed out arrows to each person in the group. He then took one and broke it over his knee. Then, reassembling the arrows in a bungle, he then showed the folly of trying to break the arrows. That leader then sent everyone home with an arrow as a reminder.

“I’ve still got mine,” Standing told The Circle.

In the “Seven Principles” outlined by Paul and Peters, the developer experts give this explanation:

“Answers to community challenges can begin with building on what we already have. One arrow can break easily, but it is difficult to break a bundle of arrows together; their strength comes from collectively being bound together.”

The first group of co-op development trainers, who held meetings in St. Paul in February, included members of the

Dineh (Navajo), Oneida, Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa, Confederated Tribes of Umatilla and Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, both in Oregon; the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska; the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes at Fort Peck, in Montana; and the Hopi’s First and Second Mesas (what the Ojibwe would call bands) in Arizona.

No Minnesota groups are currently involved in the other effort, but Minnesotan with cooperative and community development backgrounds are.

Among them are Margaret Lund, an established co-op development experts who has worked on projects throughout the United States; Kevin Edberg, executive director of the Minnesota-based Cooperative Development Services non-profit; and Christina Jennings, executive director of the Shared Capital Cooperative in Minneapolis.

Standing, a member of the co-op capital co-op’s board of directors, said she uses those three co-op leaders as “a sounding board” for her own work.

Forming new enterprises with purposes of generating activities for “the common good” of communities is never easy, Standing said. For Indigenous people, both on reservations and in urban settings, it can be difficult for a variety of legal and tax restraints.

The work is necessarily community driven, she said. Boundaries fixed by treaties for reservations restrict some cooperative activities. And tax laws offer another example of why co-op models can’t simply be duplicated from state to state, or Canadian province to province.

For instance, tribes in Minnesota collect sales taxes at tribal enterprises. In New York State, she said, they do not.

Still, there are successful co-ops on Indian land and in Indian, non-reservation communities that offer models than can be adapted, she said. They cover the landscape of needs and helpful services, including marketing products such as artworks and clothing, health care and personal services, some educational programs, and a wide variety of financial services.

A couple of examples in Minnesota include the Indigenous Farmers Collective, which is an informal group coordinated through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, and the Northern Eagle Federal Credit Union at Nett Lake, on the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa reservation.