Developing a Healthy Economy | Cheyenne River
Four Bands Community Fund’s Lakota Vogel offers an overview of the economic landscape of the reservation and the spatial challenges of rural development.
Listen to Lakota Vogel explain the Cheyenne River Reservation’s economy and its dependence on the public sector.
This audio recording is excerpted from the conversation that has been transcribed and edited in the interview below.
Annie Coombs and Zoë Malliaros interviewed Lakota Vogel in 2020.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Annie Coombs and Zoë Malliaros (AC and ZM): Can you talk about the job opportunities that are available on Cheyenne River?
Lakota Vogel (LV): There are three anchor institutions here: the school systems, hospital, and the tribal government. Those anchor institutions employ the majority of our population, and they are all federally funded.
An economy is like a triangle, and we’re in an irregularly shaped triangle here. A healthy-shaped economy will have equal resources in each of the sectors in the triangle: the public sector, the nonprofit sector, and the private economy. Our triangle pretty much only consists of the public sector, where our anchor institutions are. We have a private economy, but it’s just not large enough to offset the effects of the public sector, and there are not many nonprofits here.
Four Bands is a nonprofit, and we can’t pay like a public-sector job can, nor offer the same amount of benefits and wage growth.
I think there are jobs available. Not enough, obviously, but starting a business here is not that difficult if you have the initiative. You can start a business with a lot of support from Four Bands, but you have to have financial capability. That’s the hardest part, I think. If you come back with an education and you want to do good here, your only options are working for IHS (Indian Health Service), Bureau of Indian Affairs, or the tribal government. These are somewhat restrictive work cultures because you don’t get a lot of opportunities to innovate. They’re set up to be bureaucratic and to follow the rules.
A lot of talent is out there, but the job market has not kept up with the population growth. Entry level jobs at Dairy Queen or the grocery store could be options for the younger generation, like high school kids, but those are now lifetime jobs.
AC and ZM: What do you mean by financial capability?
LV: Financial capability is not about not having money, it’s just about understanding it. This is everybody in America. Like, how 75% of NFL players after retirement go bankrupt, right?1See: Leigh Steinberg, “5 Reasons Why 80% Of Retired NFL Players Go Broke,” Forbes, February 9, 2015. We didn’t learn the personal finance skills to manage money. I think there’s a misconception that because you want to start a business, you should know about finances. But all throughout America, a majority of small business owners don’t have an MBA or really understand finances. Usually that’s a professional service you add on to your business. Entrepreneurs are the crazy thinkers, like Steve Jobs. They’re the innovators, they’re out there, they’re wild, they’re trying to change the world. You use a different part of your brain to understand the cash flow of your business. If you can do all of that as one person, you’re pretty talented, but usually you need two people.
I just want to be clear that financial literacy is an American problem, not a Native American problem. We don’t have good financial behaviors in America, period. You know, more kids drop out of college due to debt than to bad grades, that’s just a statistic. I think that it’s a problem everywhere, but it’s a behavior system that you learn. If that system is disrupted and you’re not following it, then that leads into financial problems.
The reason I talk about that is because we try to take the shame out of it, for our people specifically. We say, “This isn’t just affecting you; even people that are rich have problems with this. It’s just about a learned behavior, and you can learn it. This is where you’re at today.”
AC and ZM: Are there any barriers more specific to the reservation?
LV: We didn’t have a credit system here. Of the four banks here on the reservation, three of them do not report to the credit bureau. You could have been a lifelong borrower of these banks and you have not built a credit history, which limits you in accessing and leveraging other capital. Not that credit’s everything, but it does give you a baseline to get things. A lot of people leave the reservation to go get a car, and the car dealership will run their credit and find nothing. Four Bands started remedying that in about 2010, when we started reporting to the credit bureaus.
We also don’t have systems set up to support things like women working. For example, day care is really hard to find. If there’s a woman in the family that wants to work, or a man who is the sole caretaker of his children—and there are a lot of families like that—then it’s almost impossible because of the day care options.2From the Cheyenne River Voices Data Report: “The Voices Research validates the dire need for affordable and trustworthy childcare on the Reservation. Currently, childcare on the Reservation is primarily provided by unemployed family members. Respondents identified lack of child care as a significant barrier to employment.”
AC and ZM: Can you speak about your perspective on money and the idea of value in Lakota culture?
LV: Four Bands has about 20 years of experience and in the startup phases of the organization. We did well connecting culture to money and redefining wealth in our context. This started a wave of activism and next-level conversation around financing. Individuals are now understanding credit and the interest rate systems, and we are able to educate around best practices there.
These days, most of the folks that we’re dealing with are familiar with the money system, but the value of money is different. Money does not define you. I think there’s a misconception that there isn’t money here, when we actually have a lot of money on the reservation—people just aren’t using it correctly. It’s a tool and we’re letting it control our lives instead of us controlling it.
AC and ZM: Can you elaborate on what you mean by the “value of money is different”?
LV: It’s also hard to convince people to get a nine-dollar-an-hour job if it’s not really tasking their brain; they feel undervalued and most likely they’ll lose their subsidy and all the things it pays for. The offset isn’t there to motivate people enough. We’ve never come up with a perfect wage-paying job with benefits that would offset all the subsidies that people are getting. That would be an interesting study, to lay out everything that one household on Cheyenne River is getting, and then see what wage benefits package they would need to be able to offset those benefits: a livable wage study.
I’ve thought about the idea of work as motivation, with its own emotional benefits. We do workforce development here at Four Bands. We can start as many businesses as we want, but if we don’t have workforce to put in them, they won’t last. We’ve asked people what the purpose of work is for them, and most of the time, it was internal, people feeling like that was what society wanted them to do. Or it became monetary, like, “I could finally buy that truck that I always wanted” or “I could finally get my boy his birthday present.”
AC and ZM: Why is it so important to have an organization like Four Bands on Cheyenne River? What opportunity are you providing that otherwise wouldn’t exist?
LV: If you want to innovate and do new things in your community, we offer that opportunity. My conclusion after all these years is that we have a lot of small business activity here. It came to light during this pandemic; we see what happens to the economy when all the small businesses are shut down.
That was one of the most frustrating things during this PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] stuff. We’ve been here 20 years, but we are not a certified SBA [Small Business Administration] lender. We are the small business financer and we weren’t eligible to apply on behalf of the small businesses. Instead, we worked with the clients, packaged all their loans, sent them off to a bank, and received no compensation for the hours of work we put into each loan.
I think Four Bands is really important just even as a space to imagine what could be possible. And we hold that space here constantly in the community. We develop entrepreneurial spirit and we keep it alive. We’re trying to do that statewide; we don’t just serve Cheyenne River. In 2013 we expanded to serve all natives in South Dakota. You walk in our door and we will take a look at your credit profile, see where you’re at and ask, “What are your dreams? Do you want to start a business?”
Four Bands is constantly responding to the community need for access to capital. There’s been a tactical shift in people pursuing home ownership, but not a shift in people financing it. The Cheyenne River Housing Authority developed the Badger Park Lot, and created a section for private homeownership. So in partnership, we created a mortgage loan product and began providing mortgages in 2019. We’ve done six of those so far.
AC and ZM: How does mortgage lending work on trust land?
LV: Conventional lending rhetoric is that you cannot mortgage trust land. This is not true. You can mortgage trust land; it just takes time. Right now, it’s taking about a year to get the mortgage recorded with the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs]. The unconventional methods start to occur when financial institutions begin the process of perfecting the lien or the mortgage. Four Bands is comfortable in this process because we have the relationships and we have the patience. We know we will get our lien/mortgage recorded eventually, so let’s close the loan and buy the house. This is the fun part of being a CDFI [Community Development Financial Institution]. We don’t have to follow conventional financing rules and regulations. We have relationships with the homeowner, and we see it as investing in the person for 30 years. We are comfortable with a little risk in the first few months.
AC and ZM: What would be the benefits to having trust land? Do you see a benefit to people converting trust land to fee patent?
LV: I’ve been talking about that a lot lately. I’m looking for elder advice because I don’t want to stand up on a platform and advocate for trust land conversion, because tribal sovereignty is in that mix. I’m not developing a platform for that now, I’m just saying you can mortgage your trust land. We’re trying to work within the existing system and to close that time gap, to make it more comfortable for a regular financial institution to jump in.
Wealth will never be grown in the traditional sense until you can leverage the trust land here. My other thought on that is that maybe we don’t measure wealth the way that America measures wealth. We’ve got to come up with a different system. Maybe net worth isn’t our measurement of wealth because of the asset structure here. There is valuation on trust land: somebody out there has just said that it doesn’t count. I’d rather go after those somebodies than change the system.
I think if somebody is going to convert trust land to fee patent, it can’t be Cheyenne River. The tribe will never have that conversation until they don’t feel threatened by their state government. They will never cede and give up land, because it’s their boundaries to protect. Because of that hostile government to government relationship, I don’t imagine seeing it in my lifetime.
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Cheyenne River Protects its Residents During the 2020 Covid-19 Pandemic
During the height of the pandemic, the tribe required a permit for entry or re-entry to the reservation, mandated masks, and established a curfew in stark contrast to state policy. Governor Kristi Noem tried to get the federal government to intervene in order to permit unrestricted access to the state highway that runs through the reservation. Report photographer Dawnee LeBeau shared these images reflecting on how the pandemic changed day-to-day life and work.
AC and ZM: What are some of the spatial challenges of development?
LV: To me spatially, the hardest thing about developing in this area is that it’s a rural area with outdated infrastructure. If you have an old business owner, they probably don’t carry insurance at this point. So when new, under-resourced people want to take over, they can’t, because of all the costs to get it up to code or up to insurable rates. How can you expect somebody to come to the table with $85,000 for a small business loan? There are so many upfront infrastructure costs to develop the physical space for new businesses. It’s like starting from scratch out here.
AC and ZM: Have more opportunities arisen now that there’s access to the internet? Has the nature of work changed on the reservation in the last few decades?
LV: Four Bands supported a Merck partnership with the Tribe. Merck wanted to build a back-end call center where you could employ people to transcribe doctors’ notes out of our call center here. They proposed a whole bunch of plans and we worked with them for about eight months; we developed a workgroup and we did some workforce development skills testing to see what our workforce brought to the table.
However, our proposal ended up expiring for various reasons. First off, our limited broadband infrastructure was deemed to be risky. When a rural community only has one broadband provider it runs the risk of crashing and impacting the production cycles of the business. Basically, the reason we’re risky is that there’s a monopoly on broadband. We only have one broadband internet provider, so if it would crash, you wouldn’t be able to complete your orders on time. We don’t have AT&T or Verizon pounding on our door to offer broadband to our communities. So it was really expensive to find a second option to take out the risk of a crash happening. We get winter storms and really awful weather, so sometimes the internet could be out for days, and I don’t think a small business like that could afford missing all of its orders. We couldn’t come up with a contingency plan just in case that stuff happened.
I think we’ve got a population that can perform the work and is savvy—it’s just the infrastructure around opportunity is lacking. And if you want the Tribe to be involved, that’ll take years of relationship building. Who wants to put in the time for that? No corporation wants to do that.
AC and ZM: In terms of the more rural communities, has there been any change in the work opportunities available? How does the distance people have to travel to get to most jobs affect their ability to do them?
LV: I don’t think everybody is as overwhelmed with it as it seems. Yeah, it adds a lot of expense to your budget, but I think that it’s a way of life in rural areas.
There’s a sort of fatalism here. If you get bit by a rattlesnake, you might die. If you say that to an urban population, they’ll freak out, but it’s probably going to take an hour and a half for an ambulance service to get to you here, so the reality could be death. I think we’re accustomed to that in rural areas a bit more than people who are used to having things at their fingertips.
The lack of a car thing is a barrier, but we all know how to get where we need to go. We do have a transit system now, so you can use transit as your last-case scenario. People know who has a vehicle. There’s this informal way: I’ll pay twenty-five dollars for you to take me somewhere, which people put in their budgets when I work with them.3From the 2014 Cheyenne River Voices Data Report, “Paying people for rides and carpooling are normal and essential elements of combining resources to make ends meet and efficiently stretching families’ incomes. Very few people opt to utilize the tribal transit system.” Our communities are not built off rugged individualism, we survive by sticking together and helping one another out.
What would be great is if our communications could take advantage of technology, if we had jobs that could employ a person in Bridger over the internet, but we just don’t have that sector. There are not many jobs that you could do from home, especially when your anchor institutions are the school systems, hospitals, and the federal government. There are some C-Stores4A ‘C-store’ is a Convenience store attached to a gas station. that were built out in Takini and La Plant, so that is probably 12 to 15 jobs created for the shift work. That’s a start. It’s not huge, but it helps.
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Excerpt from “For Native Americans, Health Care is a Long, Hard Road Away”
Images and text excerpted from Misha Friedman’s “For Native Americans, Health Care is a Long, Hard Road Away,” published April 13, 2016 on npr.org.
AC and ZM: If you could think of one thing to invest in to help the Cheyenne River community grow, what would it be?
LV: A good investment here would be something like a call center/technology-based company where we could employ at least 80 people. We’d need a building, and to wire that building for technology is expensive. Then you would need to have a workforce-development training system.
For a lot of young students, the easiest thing for them is the CNA program, Certified Nurse Assistant. At the local college, Oglala Lakota College–Cheyenne River Center, they can get their CNA certification and then immediately go to work at IHS, one of the local hospitals, or providing services for elders, either through a business or at the Medicine Wheel Village, which is an assisted living home. There’s a lot of need for a CNA service, as we want elders to age here in their homes. I think there’s more need for home healthcare and we could have several of those businesses operating. That’s a big job pipeline for high school graduates.
AC and ZM: Can you tell us the story of somebody who’s gotten a Four Bands loan that’s been really successful?
LV: Kelsey Kay Haskell runs Kelsey Kay’s Coffee Depot. She’s been working on this dream forever, so when we were in the building stages of the incubator in 2019, she chose to come in and work with the architects and develop her space and build it out. She’s been in here for a year and a half and she’s done so well that she’s ready to buy her own building and move out of the incubator space. The incubator space was 300 square feet, pretty tiny, and it was meant to be uncomfortable. She needed to grow and she’s got a huge following, people love it. It’s about the community need, and everyone loves a coffee shop.