“Sovereign Entrepreneurs: Economic Identities”

The following is an excerpt from Courtney Lewis’ “Sovereign Entrepreneurs: Cherokee Small-Business Owners and the Making of Economic Sovereignty“. By 2009, reverberations of economic crisis spread from the United States around the globe. As corporations across the United States folded, however, small businesses on the Qualla Boundary of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) continued to thrive. In this rich ethnographic study, Courtney Lewis reveals the critical roles small businesses such as these play for Indigenous nations. The EBCI has an especially long history of incorporated, citizen-owned businesses located on their lands. When many people think of Indigenous-owned businesses, they stop with prominent casino gaming operations or natural-resource intensive enterprises. But on the Qualla Boundary today, Indigenous entrepreneurship and economic independence extends to art galleries, restaurants, a bookstore, a funeral parlor, and more.

Lewis’ “Sovereign Entrepreneurs: Cherokee Small-Business Owners and the Making of Economic Sovereignty” was featured recently on our Native American Heritage Month reading list.

Cherokee has been well known as a primary tourist destination in western North Carolina for nearly one hundred years. A short drive through the main streets of this town reveals strips of small back-to-back buildings and stores that seem to be dedicated to the tourist market. Behind these dominant facades, however, lies a rich world of small businesses. In fact, as reported by the EBCI’s Office of Budget and Finance’s Revenue Office, less than half of the businesses on the Qualla Boundary are strictly tourist oriented. There are many construction and landscaping businesses (some of which have won small-business awards, such as those given at the yearly National Minority Enterprise Development Week Conference), as well as other community-oriented businesses—including a funeral home, mechanics, craft-supply stores (wood, beads, leather), a cab service, accounting services, hair salons, office supplies, legal services, hardware supplies, website services, pest control, video-production, photography services, day care, a children’s clothing shop, signmaking, local convenience stores, painting services, and DJ services—with more emerging every year. This overall small-business diversity is crucial in serving the local community, tourists, and the EBCI’s national economic sovereignty.

The physical spaces of these businesses vary: some have their own offices or building storefronts, while others are run from a vehicle (the Sound of Music DJ service’s van uses only biodiesel that the owner produces in-house)—and then there are those that operate out of the owner’s home or out of a building on the owner’s family’s land. Many of the local-oriented businesses would be quite challenging to find if you did not know the area well as they may have little to no web presence for promotion or mapping. In fact, for some homes with small farms tucked into the back roads of the mountains, the practice of leaving produce or cornmeal out in the front yard with the expectation that payment will be left in return is common. As I was told, you “just know” that they will have it, so you drive by to check to see if they have any ready for sale. Getting more coveted produce, such as the delicious and difficult-to-find wishi mushroom (wild-harvested in the fall), requires knowing how to contact the owner to get on a waiting list.

Sorting out this diversity of small businesses and small-business practices begins with two seemingly simple but central questions: Who owns these businesses, and what markets do they serve? To delve into these questions, we must begin by examining the contextual distinctiveness of American Indians’ economic identities and their related experiences. Addressing these constructions helps refine our theoretical understandings of what has been termed indigenous entrepreneurship by following how the external shaping of indigenous economic identity has hindered its representation as well as its expression.

The Absent Indigenous Entrepreneurs

These are the dying breed stories that we try to capture whenever we are on the road with our cameras.

—The Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods on Eastern Band citizen Johnnie Sue Myers’s cooking (emphasis added)

As I sat down in the crowded little diner in the midst of the Great Smoky Mountains, the waitress asked me, “Siyo, doiyusdi tsaditasdi tsaduli?” (ᏏᏲ, Ꮩ ᎢᏳᏍᏗ ᏣᏗᏔᏍᏗ ᏣᏚᎵ? “Hi, what would you like to drink?”). Still skimming the menu, I answered, “Siyo, kowi agwaduli” (ᏏᏲ, ᎧᏫ ᎠᏆᏚᎵᎭ; “Hi, I’d like a coffee”). I had learned from Bo Taylor’s summer language-immersion course (taken at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, well before I started my fieldwork) that this was one of a handful of restaurants you could go to on the Qualla Boundary where, if the wait staff recognized you, you could speak Cherokee. During this language course, we would eat lunch every day at a different restaurant. Some, like the Little Princess restaurant (which features “Indian dinner” nights, including items such as bean bread and grease, as does Paul’s Diner and the Newfound Restaurant), have a few staff members who spoke Cherokee. The servers at other restaurants, such as a local Chinese buffet, now speak remedial Cherokee as a result of Bo’s persistent attempts to teach them a bit of the language each time he goes in (making this, quite possibly, the only place where you can enjoy lo mein while ordering hot green tea in the Cherokee language). For me, these restaurants—ranging from local to tourist oriented, franchise to home cooking, and buffet to diner—reflect the diversity and community of small businesses on the Qualla Boundary.

Considering this diversity, watching the above-mentioned episode of Bizarre Foods reinforced the absurdity of the non-Native world’s continued perception of American Indians as a “dying breed.” This claim was made even as the show creators were watching American Indians writing cookbooks about “Cherokee feasts,” providing guided tours of reservation waterways, serving meals, and promoting local American Indian artists, all in front of a television crew. Even when people like Andrew Zimmern are surrounded by Cherokee people and their many businesses all day, they still see them as “vanishing.” Philip Deloria began to trace this contradiction by examining how indigenous anomalies, as interpreted through the settler-colonial gaze, were necessarily rendered invisible in order to continue settler-colonial agendas (e.g., land procurement). One of these anomalies discussed by Daniel Usner is the “Indian work” that settler-colonial society deems inauthentic for American Indians (conveyed in media and pop culture but also given legitimacy through academic and government officials). The tactic—and necessity—of applied invisibility by settler-colonial society continues today.

Throughout their histories, American Indians have practiced what has been termed entrepreneurialism. Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas had extensive trade routes established well before Europeans arrived. Following European arrival, American Indians were the driving force supporting international business networks and trade, supplying European countries with goods that eventually contributed to the development of (by European standards) a “native elite,” in addition to the wealth created for European businesses and individuals. According to Cherokee Nation citizen Gary “Litefoot” Davis, president and CEO of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, former rapper, and self-described entrepreneur, “I think that business and being entrepreneurs is probably one of the most traditional things that Native people have ever done. For me, being an entrepreneur is a very traditional activity.”

Courtney Lewis (Cherokee Nation) is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of South Carolina–Columbia.