Month: March 2006

Sundance Film Festival’s Native Forum is a work in progress

PARK CITY, Utah – Every year, the Sundance Film Festival is host to some of the most innovative and important films and creative media people in the world. And because of the personal interest of it’s founder, Robert Redford, Sundance is also host to a unique program called the ”Native Forum.” This Forum was created to support the development of Native filmmakers and their projects, and showcases select films each year during the Festival. Inclusion in the Sundance Film Festival can launch a career, and Indian people have a special entree through the stage door of the Native Forum.

The current Director of this program is N. Bird Runningwater. He serves as an official programmer for the Festival at large, but his niche role at Sundance is as a mentor to their Native filmmakers and a “shepherd” to their projects. Runningwater said, “Sundance Film Festival’s Native Forum is a gathering of Indigenous filmmakers from around the world, offering opportunities to share their expertise and knowledge with each other and with the independent film community through workshops, panels, networking events and special screenings.”

In 2005, the status of the Native Forum at the Sundance Film Festival changed from that of its own separate showcase at the event to being an integrated part of the festival. This shift created new opportunities for the Native Forum, but it also shut some doors. Instead of having a specialty category for Native films only, the festival made the Forum part of the larger festival, thus making the Native filmmakers have to compete with everyone else for a coveted berth in the annual Sundance Film Festival.

This meant no more “special” category, but it also meant that those Native films that were accepted would be treated with the same high regard as all of the other films. “Special” and “separate” wasn’t working for the Native Forum, as the films were not always well-attended or covered by the press (and, if you know Sundance, you know that film screening tickets are generally very valuable and hard to obtain).

It was interesting to see how this all played out at the 2006 festival. What we found was that there were two very distinct and different levels of activity going on. First, and most visible, were the screenings of those films that successfully competed with all of the other thousands of entries from around the globe to win a coveted spot in the film festival schedule. Second was the significant activity going on beneath the scene visible to the general public.

There were very well attended panels, workshops, and gatherings at which valuable information and contacts were obtained, along the with usual networking and friendship-building. The Native Forum has shown that it is much more than a screening venue for indigenous work. It is even more significantly an incubator, a nurturing and supportive environment for those individual artists who are working to develop their craft and hone their film business skills.

It is in this second level that the Forum is showing the most success for the moment. There were four “Native” films that made it into the actual festival this year, two feature-length films and two short films. And, only one piece, a short film entitled “Gesture Down (I Don’t Sing)” by Cedar Sherbert (Kumeyaay), was from a tribe in the United States. His film is a personal adaptation of the poem “Gesture Down to Guatemala” by the late Native American writer James Welch.

The other short film, “Smudge,” was by Canadian First Nation filmmaker Gail Maurice (Metis). “Smudge” shows how a small group of Aboriginal women celebrate their rights to worship in the city, their way, by using drums, chants and smoldering sweet grass…which can draw unwanted attention in the city. The two feature length films brought into question the meaning of the “Native” Forum, as both projects were from overseas.

“No. 2” by Fiji Islander/British filmmaker Toa Fraser won the coveted Audience Award at Sundance, the same award Niki Caro’s “Whale Rider” won in 2003. This successful narrative has a universal appeal and illustrates the connections and familiarities that indigenous people often share. It follows the story of an elder who is trying to throw a party and gather her family around her as it was done in her lifetime.

The other, “The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros,” was by Auraeus Solito of the Phillipines. This gritty film follows the life of a 12-year old boy who lives as a young girl to replace the deceased mother. It is a dramatic film that examines hope in the context of a difficult life.

As Bird Runningwater has explained in the past, sometimes the limitations of the Native Forum at Sundance are directly related to the shortage of quality material coming out of Native America. As such, a good deal of the conversation during the Native Forum is about work that is “in the pipeline.” It is Sundance’s continuing commitment to artist development that has Runningwater, and the Festival Director Geoffrey Gilmore, looking to the future of Native cinema.

Selected for this year’s Filmmakers Workshop were Native filmmakers Leslie Gee, Caddo/Delaware/Choctaw; Blackhorse Lowe, Navajo; Billy Luther, Navajo/Hopi/Laguna Pueblo; and Andrew Okpeaha MacLean, Inupiaq. The Filmmakers Workshop is made possible through a grant from the Ford Foundation’s New Works Initiative. Over the past 25 years, Native filmmakers Sherman Alexie, Chris Eyre, Sterlin Harjo, Zoe Hopkins, Blackhorse Lowe, Merata Mita, Alanis Obomsawin, Randy Redroad and Taika Waititi were among the 50 Native writers and directors showcased by the Sundance Institute and its film festival.

The Native filmmakers’ works were among 100 films selected by Sundance. [Sidebar] Tohono O’odham tribal member Mike Wilson speaks after a screening of “Crossing Arizona” at the Sundance Film Festival. Although the subject matter was relevant to Native America, this documentary film by Joseph Mathew was not a part of the Native Forum, which is reserved for indigenous filmmakers.

Wilson is holding crosses with the names of immigrants who have died while crossing the Mexico-Arizona border through his tribe’s lands. He is featered in this film that examines the debate over the humanity of current U.S. immigration laws. Photo by Lise Balk King

Exclusive Native Voice Interview with SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL Director Geoffrey Gilmore

The Native Voice granted exclusive interview with Sundance Film Festival Director Geoffrey Gilmore to talk about the present realities and future possibilities for Native cinema and Sundance’s “Native Forum”

Geoffrey Gilmore is currently the Director of the Sundance Film Festival, held each January in Park City and Salt Lake City, Utah. Known as being the godfather of independent film, Sundance is also home to a unique project called “The Native Forum.” This forum seeks to support Native Filmmakers and showcase their work, and it is a favored part of the festival by Gilmore, who is thoughtful in his analysis of the current state of Native media. He engages in passionate conversation about the Sundance Festival, the Sundance Institute, and the current and future place of The Native Forum at Sundance and in the larger world of major media.

Frank J. King, III: When did you get involved with Native American filmmaking?

Geoffrey Gilmore: I was trying to do Native programming years ago while I was in college at UCLA. It was one of the first very visible programs. So I’ve had a long term interest in trying to see storytelling develop, particularly out of this community. It’s been a struggle.

Lise Balk King: Yes, it has. There are things that are shifting now in the attitudes of the tribes toward media development, out of an understanding of the need. It’s a reactionary thing, it’s coming out of the Abramoff scandal, it’s coming out of the movement to “Get Out The Native Vote.” It’s also about Native media gaining legitimacy and respect, which is necessary.

FJK: The whole tribal thing is like they are like, ten years behind. Which means that there is nobody to teach. Film especially. A lot of the tribes don’t trust the media to begin with, so we have to change that stereotype. To show what media can do for them, what films can do.

GG: I’ve had a lot of experience with different Native filmmakers and different people who are friends of mine over the years. One of the things that I experienced, particularly with the people who are political, was the amount of backstabbing that was going on inside the community. Where you’d have a guy who became a visible force immediately be almost countered by somebody who was trying to not quite tear him down, but not quite allow that whole thing to develop. It was almost these competing kind of energies going on, and that was upsetting to me at different points in time.

LBK: It’s the phenomena we call “fighting over scraps.” It’s what happens when you get people in an isolated community that is unnatural to them, and strange dynamics go on they are starving all of the time for attention, positive feedback, self esteem – all of the things that feed the heart and soul and mind – when something comes in, it becomes a free for all. It becomes very grabby and it’s not necessarily a supportive community.

FJK: There is a way to fix that. The tribes need to get involved.

LBK: There have to be enough resources available so that the bickering stops and everybody just gets back to work.

GG: I completely agree with that. One of the things that bothers me is that I think we do things, but I don’t think that we do enough. I always feel that there is much more that we could be doing. You are sometimes caught between these kinds of pulling agendas.

When I ran the Native program section of the Sundance Festival up until a couple of years ago, my concept of that was basically that it would allow us every year to have this section of Native cinema regardless of whether it was competing with other work…in terms of making it into the competitions. And I’m not suggesting that the work wasn’t good enough…but some of it wasn’t. Some of it was and some of it wasn’t. But you’d still have work there from year to year.

After doing that for a number of years, we made the decision a couple of years ago that, “Okay let’s see if something can just stand on its own. Let’s not put it into a so-called focus section, but let’s look at a way of seeing if it can just simply be integrated into the festival.” And it worked, a little bit. But this year I don’t think it worked at all.

This year, in particular, I feel like we really didn’t have a sufficient program. And so that bothers me. It bothers me because I feel like we must not be doing a good job here. I never believe that you can just simply say that “There’s no work out there.” You know, there’s always work out there. But if you’re always struggling to find work and trying to figure out what fits and how to push things in…? Sometimes it’s a really competitive festival. It’s a question from year-to-year of trying to help build toward that critical mass (of a body of quality work).

LBK: What would you like to see?. If the Sundance team – you , the programmers, Bob Redford – if you could paint this any way you wanted it, what would you envision the Native Forum to be and to do?

GG: I think the Native Forum is different things. What Bird Runningwater is doing this year is work that clearly has to do with getting people together, getting people to talk. I think that one of the problems has been that sense that the community is not integrated into the general Independent Film Community. You have the Independent Community and you have a whole lot of different people in that community that you need relationships with because this ia a relationships business. And, it’s always been a relationships business. And if you are not connected with it, you end up having to work just isolated and on your own all of the time.

Part of what I would hope is our agenda on an annual basis is to achieve some of that integration. That’s one of the reasons that we stopped the focus on a specialized programming section. It was the idea that, “No, it’s time to integrate, it’s time to make it part of the bigger picture.” And, again, I have faith that that it is going to work on different levels. Whether it’s Chris Eyre or Sherman Alexie, or different filmmakers, as in when Heather (Rae) was in competition last year with her film on John Trudell (Heather Rae, Cherokee, served as programmer of the Native Forum at Sundance, 1995 – 2001). There’s a whole range of different things you can do. But it’s still that you get bothered when you feel that any given year you feel that there is not enough of a representation. And I look at a lot of work.

FJK: What do you think is lacking in the Native community that is contributing to this void of good projects?

GG: I always feel that one of the major issues in any kind of independent production is a lack of skilled producers. The storytellers are there. The acting talent is there. The directing talent oftentimes is there, for different reasons. But the producers, the people that get the work onto the screen, you can’t find them. And that’s a talent that you need to develop with people. It’s true in every community, and it’s true generally across the board in the independent arena.

When Bird has brought different parties to our Producers Conference over the years, I have felt that was important, again as a way of making connections. You’ve got to be able to get in doors. You’ve got to be able to reach out and get financed or have ideas of where you can go for that. And you don’t want to be simply marginalized in the old, “Well lets go talk to the CPB (Corporation for Public Broadcasting), lets talk to Frank Blythe (Director, Native American Public Telecommunications) and that’s it and that’s the only person you get to talk to. It’s almost like that’s a purposeful marginalization. It’s almost like that’s the way they dealt with it. And for me that wasn’t sufficient, there are other things to do.

LBK: And the schools aren’t teaching it either, for the most part. Not the creative or technical media training, nor media literacy. The creation of media is still seen as a far away dream for most people living in isolated, economically dry communities.

GG: What about the tribes? Is the explosion of gaming revenues going to help with the film industries?

LBK: There is there mentality with some Native filmmakers when they go to these casino tribes for money that they say – I’m Native, I should get money from you to make my film. Again, this goes back to the need for skilled producers… you have to ask, “Where is your business plan, where is your full script, where is your resume that shows that you actually have what it takes to can take this thing to completion, or who are the people you have lined up to fill in and help you with the parts that you need?

GG: There is some feeling I have about the need to develop that infrastructure, that kind of development of smart people who are able to make the connections, with the storytellers.

I’m happy to say this for public consumption – there are a lot of filmmakers who are really flaky, that is who they are. That’s almost their nature. You need other people that are able to understand markets, distribution outlets, companies and business plans. These are real things. You can’t just always argue, “Oh, well, none of that’s important because this is just a work of passion.” No. It’s very significant. It’s as significant as anything else. You’ve got to be able to get into that world. Otherwise this whole thing becomes almost philanthropic. It’s almost like it’s some marginality thing.

Its again about critical mass. I look at acting talent, and it’s there…good looking acting talent that could be cast in a lot of different places. And you look at directors, it’s there. What do you always need? The same thing everybody else needs. Developed scripts (good scripts always need development), and good production partners or producers that are able to put things together.

LBK: Is it possible to bring together those non-Indian professional film, people who can facilitate the creation of Native projects – not as the usual “mentors,” but as partners?

GG: We’ve certainly talked about it. And maybe it’s time that we figure out ways in which that can be done.

LBK: This is a field that takes a lot of resources, projects take a lot of money to produce. The confidence in the filmmaker’s ability to produce has to be there for them to get funded. It’s like any other business where you are trying to find funding sources, investors, and put a project together.

GG: I don’t want to give money to someone who doesn’t know what they are doing on any level. I just don’t. You don’t want to watch money burn up, you want it to have an impact. So when neophytes come into the office, you try to figure out, “Do they really have a sense of how to make this work, or is there somebody that they are relying on who can do this?” And, again, usually the excuses and also the reality is that you want someone there who is able to deliver the project.

What bothers me about what little I know about Native production – and I probably know a lot more than a lot of people, but I certainly don’t know enough – is that there were power players that seemed to be comfortable in the niche that they were in, and things just stayed that way. Nothing moved to the next step. What Sundance is good at, and I give my colleagues credit for this, is the development of individual artists. That is what they are best at, developing Chris (Eyre) and developing Sherman (Alexie), and having different artists come into the program that Bird is working with .

What Sundance has not been got at is as an organizing force within the breadth of all of the communities. I think Heather (Rae) did that in different ways on more of a sporadic basis than what we are doing here. But Bird is very much is trying to do different efforts, particularly with other (indigenous) nations and that works. But that is a complicated thing, because some could argue that this is a diversion of resources and attention.

Being self-critical, I wish I could see more results. Results for me are being able to point to “that film, that film, and that film” in the market place, this connection, that actor moving to there, that crossover going on, this producer saying they want to see Native material. Well then, let’s find the Native screenwriters who can just give the material to the established producers. Because I don’t want to talk bull, I’ve been doing this for too many years. I don’t want to talk about starting from scratch every single time. I want to feel like, “Okay, good. We’ve got things going on.”

Bird is really good at helping develop individual artists, at doing outreach to a number of different people. There’s more still to do that I feel like isn’t being done. Maybe it’s not our province, maybe it is. I’m also nervous about our role in all of this. I don’t want to be the “big Sundance” sweeping in to kind of give all of the answers here. We don’t have all of the answers. We have some of the answers. But we don’t have all of the answers.

LBK: We’ve done a lot to promote the Sundance Film Festival’s Native Forum. We give it coverage every year to say, “We think this is an important thing.” People are saying that we focus a lot on arts and entertainment. We focus on where we think the needs are. And we feel that there are critical needs in media and communications. And the reason that we have done the Sundance promotion is because we sense the possibilities. It’s not because we think it is one hundred perfect there…but imagine the possibilities. This is a huge opportunity for Native America. You guys are a big brand name. Everybody knows who Robert Redford is. Everybody knows who Sundance is. You guys are the Nike of the film world. So, there’s a certain amount of cache and respect that comes along with that.

The Sundance Native Forum can a motivator for people who are feeling trapped in their community, trapped by the limitations of resources and access to education, and having a vision of creating something, and going, “How the hell do I get from here to there?”

Sundance needs to decide if that’s even your agenda, if you want to go in and help to map out that road. If you do, that’s an amazing thing. If you don’t, that’s okay because maybe it’s not your job to fill in those blanks.

GG: I think the agenda has always been that we don’t see ourselves as the people who should be in that role of mapping out that big picture. We see ourselves as being in the role of helping to develop artists. I’ve always thought that what the festival does that is interesting is that it opens up that sense of the possible, that what you do is create opportunity and inspire.

If you’ve never seen a Native work before, or if you have the image of Native work being “one kind of a thing,” then you start to see, “Wait a second, these are really different kinds of movies, these are really different kinds of storytellers, these are really different ideas.” You don’t “niche” it all. It’s not all one box, Native storytelling doesn’t all come out of one box. Well, of coarse it doesn’t. So, you start to see a range of different things. And the inspirational qualities for me are the idea that the storytellers start to see that sense of the possible of, “Oh, that’s something I can do.”

Again, do I feel that our agenda is clear? You guys are probably right. I don’t think that our agenda is clear. And I feel that maybe that s something that we have to reexamine and think about again.

LBK: Sundance is inspiring because you can find so much here that is connected to who you are and what you do, even if it is not directly about you. The stories, the films are about crossing over assumed boundaries, about making connections that are more human and universal. On that end, I can see how Bird feels compelled to include other indigenous people in the Native Forum category.

“Crossing Arizona,” the film about border crossing issues, premiered here, and it just happens to be about an issue that is directly effecting the Tohono O’odham Nation. It was not part of the Native Forum because it is not-Native made. One of the main people in the film is a tribal member. This film was directly relevant to Native America.

GG:What would you like to see happen?

FJK: We have to give our young people a venue to learn how to use media to be storytellers, to learn how to shoot film, to bring their creative ideas to fruition.

I’ve had Native leaders ask me, “What does something like this cost?” And I answer, “Whatever the tribes are willing to put into it.”

Because we are not just investing in a film, we are investing in a cultural history. We are investing in the voices of our nations. We are investing in the preservation of our people. And we appreciate that Sundance is willing to be a part of this investment.

GG: I would love to strategize about how to get to that next move, about how to see where that next stage takes us.

…to be continued…


Sundance Film Festival Director Geoffrey Gilmore (L) and Frank J. King, III, Publisher of The Native Voice (R) meet at the Festival in Park City, Utah, January 25, 2006 to discuss the Native Forum and the future of Native media.

RES 2006 highlighted by appointment of Ron Solimon, President

This year’s “RES” (“Reservation Economic Summit”), hosted by the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development in Las Vegas on February 7-9, was impressive. Although growth over last war’s attendance of almost 2000 people was expected, no one anticipated the record – breaking 3200 participants. It was a veritable who’s – who of Indian business and economic development, including Indian and non-Indian government leaders and an impressive array of top brand-name American corporations looking to establish or expand their business in Indian country.

The common theme for this year’s gathering was technology and infrastructure building. The first day’s events were highlighted by a live video feed from The White House. Reuben Barrales, the Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, was linked live from his office to make his presentation and answer questions from the audience. RES 2006 was a demonstration of how twenty years of work builds upon itself, and, properly tended, can have a project take on a life of its own.

Although the goal of this year’s 20th Anniversary conference was to achieve “$1 billion in contracts” signed, the National Center started RES with much less lofty goals. Six Indian small business entrepreneurs launched the project in 1969 in the heart of Los Angeles, where they were looking for solutions to the tough challenges that all new businesses necessarily face Then known as the United Indian Development Association in 1970.

UIDA developed into a full-service business development center through management contracts with the U.S. Department of Commerce. Minority Business Development Agency. In 1989, the all-Indian Board of Directors implemented a long-term strategic plan to expand its offering of economic development services to American Indians, Native Hawaiians, Alaskan Natives and tribal governments.

Currently the National Center provides services through three regional offices near the high-density Indian populations of Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Seattle. This year’s economic summit meeting included the appointment of a new President for its Board of Directors, the Pueblo Indian Cultural Center’s President and CEO, Ron Solimon (Pueblo of Laguna).

Ron was clearly energized by his new job, and the tasks ahead of him as the leader for the National Center and their year-round activities, including the RES gathering. Although the RES gatherings have become, on the surface, more about big government, large corporations and well-funded tribal enterprises.

Solimon is committed to continuing to serve the new and small individual Indian-owned businesses. And if focusing on fueling the economic growth of Indian country at large, the National Center would be right to spend their energy here, as small businesses represent 99.7 percent of all employers in the United States’ economy, (source:

Ron Solimon: It is evident by the numbers of people that we have here at the conference that it’s one of the most successful conferences that we’ve had. We started with the emphasis being on the individually-owned companies and now, more and more tribally-owned companies are here (at RES). I just talked to a firm that is just getting started and they deal in herbal horse products. It was very interesting to hear what their story is. I never envisioned anything like that. It’s KB Distributing Herbal Horse Products out of Montecito, California.

TNV: How has working with the National Center and RES helped Indian businesses? Solimon: Many of the individual participants continue to be entrepreneurial, and we really respect their own individual visions for themselves and their families, to pursue companies that can provide and generate enough revenue for their families to live on and to prosper.

We’ve seen that, as time has gone along, companies that started out very small now, with the exposure that they get here at the Reservation Economic Summit, they add to their business space, expand their network of companies and other entities that they can eventually do business with. For me, it continues to be exciting in terms of seeing the variety of companies that are emerging. And, of course, with the advent of the technological advances it makes everything much more simple in terms of our ability to stay in contact with one another. A lot of the focus in this particular RES was on the internet technology and what kind of progress was being made.

TNV: How has the vision for RES changed? You were talking about you’ve gone from an emphasis on individual business ownership to tribal business ownership. Can you talk a little bit about the vision, the philosophy, and how that’s evolved in terms of how individual Indian people and communities and tribes can become financially and economically solvent?

Solimon: First of all, the composition of our client base or the consumers that we serve really is still predominantly individually owned businesses. That really results from the relocation program the federal government engaged in during the 1950s where they relocated Indian people to urban settings. The offspring of parents who were relocated grew up in an urban setting and then started learning the businesses. It continues to be the entrepreneurial spirit that’s thriving and is enabling people to pursue their own goals. But the tribally owned concerns from the reservations, a large part of why we call this the Reservation Economic Summit, have come to rely more and more on the expertise that not only individual business owners, but also the expertise possessed by our staff members at the Mesa office and also at procurement/technical assistance centers throughout the United States.

That’s been the most visible effort on our part to reach out to tribal communities, is to have offices in Seattle, in California, Atlanta, Georgia, and the East Coast.

TNV: Tell us about the goal that is printed on this year’s materials of “$1 billion in contracts”?

Solimon: Last year we had with close to $600 million in business actually being transacted through deals being made here. This year we have a loftier goal in terms of the volume of business that we expect. We’re expecting between $600 million and a billion dollars worth of business to be conducted here. So, we serve as a great marketplace for that.

TNV: What do you say to the individual who’s growing up in a more rural environment?. What would you say to that person who’s living on the reservation who has a lot of ideas but doesn’t really know where to go? What do you tell that person who’s just getting started?

Solimon: I’d ask them to call the National Center which is headquartered in Mesa, Arizona, where the key management team is located. They can direct them to the satellite operations that we have that might be closer to their own reservation location or reserve location. And, of course, the locations of our satellite operations might lend more expertise in certain areas.

For instance, in defense contracting arenas, we have strategic locations close to naval shipyards. We’re just a phone call away and we have an 800 number, 1-800-4 NCAI-ED. And a lot of it has to do with just basic technical assistance, financing and alternatives they might have and expertise that might exist that they’re not aware of now, where they can rely on to help them develop their own business plans. That’s the kind of service that we provide, and we’re really, truly national in terms of our outreach capabilities.

TNV: If I got this right, the RES 2004 had 600 registrants, 700 registrants, and now you have close to 3,000?

Solimon: Yes, we’re over 3,000. We had 2,500 signed up before it began but many more people showed up than we anticipated.

TNV: Can you give us a little bit of the inside conversation about how all of you who have been nurturing this organization, what you’d like to see it do now and into the future?

Solimon: We’re very excited, first of all, at the progress that Indian business has made over the last ten years. We’ve seen almost exponential growth, so it’s very rewarding. There are a lot of high points for us related to the volume of business that’s done here. We don’t want to be just another conference where people attend and then they go home and forget what they’re able to achieve.

We want people to go away from here with business deals in their briefcase, ready to go, executing their business plans and also looking at new opportunities. There are always a variety of opportunities that surface at networking opportunities like this that they might not even have envisioned.

TNV: What, in particular, would like to communicate to those tribal leaders who participate in legislative sessions on Capitol Hill?

Solimon: One of the largest workshops that we held here was, related to the Small Business Administration, the Small Business Act, the program under Section 8(a) of the statute. It’s very important for all of us to stick together in terms of preserving the 8(a) program because it enables tribally-owned concerns to establish companies that can be eligible for sole-source awards, and many times tribes are in financial situations and their economic conditions are such that, in order to get off to a quick start, they need to have a sole-source contract award.

Not only is that program important, but there are continuing things like the Mentor-Protege Program that’s really had its genesis over at the Department of Defense and has now expanded to some extent over to other agencies, and the 5% incentive program for prime contractors to do business with Indian-owned companies. That particular program needs to be continued and re-authorized and actually have appropriations that fund it so that it can continue.

TNV: This organization is seeing some great success. Is there any down side to that?

Solimon: Many times, people across the country, with the growth that we’ve seen only in very recent times, assume that everybody’s doing well now, there’s a chicken in every pot, and Indians don’t need to be engaged in this or covered by the trust relationship that currently exists; that it’s okay to just cut them loose. And that’s really not the case; we’re just barely taking our first step. I think that perspective is very important for us to communicate to the legislative and executive branches.

The message is that we are just taking our first step and that we need them to continue to allow us to take more steps. We need to mature in terms of our business acumen so that tribes can really gain a foothold in the various industries that we’re engaged in now, and the individuals who are entrepreneurs can thrive in that environment. At some point in time, the (federal) programs may need to be re-examined, but certainly not now.

TNV: One thing that came to mind…There’s been a lot of talk about encouraging Native businesses to do business with other Native companies. How successful do you think that initiative has been? It’s been fairly recent, just in the last few years, since NIGA and NCAI made those initiatives. Have you seen an impact of that yet?

Solimon: Yes. Every one of us that has a CEO role in an Indian organization or company has the discretion to direct procurement, and so it starts there. Of course such a decision has to be made on a business rationale concerning price, delivery; but there’s also something new that’s developed in terms of best value and the opportunity to take advantage of the kind of product or service that other Indian-owned companies provide. A lot of my own buying or procurement activities have resulted from contacts made here at RES.

When you see the companies that are out there with different kinds of services, graphic design, security…you name it, a lot of the contacts begin right here. And we, as an organization, have decided to pursue and assist the National Indian Gaming Association, at the request of the president, Ernie Stevens Jr., to help him establish a program called the American Indian Business Network; and that really is for the purpose of encouraging Native-owned companies to do business with other Native owned companies. So, we’re passionate about that, many of us are. And the Board took that formal action yesterday to develop a Memorandum of Understanding or other agreement that would document that joint effort and that alliance between us and NIGA.

TNV: There’s this impression that it’s high-level business being done here, only. It’s important to hear that you still believe that your core is supporting the individually-owned businesses.

Solimon: We’ve never lost that belief or recollection that that’s where many of us started from and that’s where many of the people that are on the Board of Directors originated from was their own efforts to fulfill their own dreams as individual entrepreneurs. These people have prospered. We have Native American board members and they are not likely to forget that we’re part of this continuum.

We know that our ancestors fought for many of the privileges that we have now and many of the rights that we have now, they’ve had to litigate, had to sacrifice themselves in many cases by traveling back and forth to Washington or wherever. And many of our people, in fact, passed on while they were in Washington advocating for our people. So, all of us unequivocally recognize that our ancestors not too far behind, a couple of generations in many cases, were riding trains and traveling the best way they could on Greyhound buses.

Now, many of us are flying and we’re there in a matter of hours when, for them, it was a matter of days and sometimes months that they were gone from their reservations and encountering foreign kinds of foods and environments. We reflect on that very frequently, that this is what our grandfathers and our uncles, and people before them, sacrificed for. Being cognizant of that really brings a certain kind of reality to our current involvement in this organization.

And it really, brings purpose for our continued involvement here to provide opportunity for people at the grass roots level, for those kids who are just now looking at being in some kind of business, for those who are involved in Junior Achievement, or FHA or all those kinds of programs that are trying to help kids get ready for doing business on their own. My hope is that the tribally owned concerns that are doing well will assist the individual entrepreneurs to get on their feel and to be gainfully employed to be generating revenue for themselves and their families. That’s what one of our goals is, to try to ensure that that happens.

The best way we can do that is to invite everybody to this conference, make the best accommodations available at a reasonable price for them to come and network with people. As I encouraged people yesterday, I told them, if you brought with you a thousand of your business cards, don’t go home with that thousand cards. Talk to everybody, talk to them and see what they’re doing because some of the wildest notions that you might have had might come into fruition right there because there’s an opportunity that presents itself.

There are so many people here that we try to bring in quality people that can provide top-notch assistance in terms of business plans and other things, so that when someone has an idea we can help them develop it, to examine the central reality of that kind of business notion coming into fruition and evolving into a business.

TNV: Last thing that I wanted to ask is this idea of tribal sovereignty being strengthened and built by individual sovereignty. That one of the things that can strengthen tribal sovereignty is having economic sovereignty, breaking the heavy percentage of dependence on the United States government. Would you like to talk about individual sovereignty and how individuals can achieve self-sufficiency and independence and self-esteem through economic sovereignty? The collective self-esteem is also based upon the individual self-esteem of taking care of yourself, your family, your community. Coming from your own experience, if you could tell us about what you had to do, the kind of decisions you have to make in your own mind to achieve the things you’ve achieved to have that individual sovereignty and strength and purpose?

Solimon: Well, I pursued a business degree, so I think education is very important. Any kind of training is important to obtain so that you can better understand the realities of doing business here in the U.S. and, eventually, overseas. I know that’s seems like a stretch from what we’re talking about but paying attention to educational attainment as an individual, to not take lightly any opportunities to get educated. The other thing is to take advantage of opportunities. Oftentimes people shy away from different kinds of training opportunities thinking things like, “I’m not well-enough prepared to engage in this training,” But go ahead and try it. It might be difficult, but they should go ahead and give it a shot.

A lot of us grew up grass roots. I grew upon a Pueblo reservation in New Mexico, where after doing our chores and taking care of sheep and doing other things, since of course our family and lifestyle was agrarian and, eventually, mining, I used to look up at the sky and see these jets pass overhead and wonder if I would ever be in a jet. And now I have so many miles on my frequent flyer programs that I can’t even use them. So I think that it’s entirely possible that to pursue your dream you need to equip yourself to take on the challenges; to understand financial statements, to understand the business planning process. That is part and parcel of what our ancestors have done in the past, is equip themselves.

TNV: Thank you very much for your time and your words of encouragement.

Solimon: It’s been my pleasure. We really appreciate the work that you all do in getting the word out. This is really very important. We thank you, too.