2005 High Honors
Winners:
Blackfeet Nation
2005
Publication:
Honoring Contributions in the Governance of American Indian Nations in the United States
Sponsored By:
Honoring Contributions in the Governance of American Indian Nations in the United States
Jurisdiction:
Tribal Governments

With its tribal government headquartered in Browning, Montana , the Blackfeet Nation is located in a rural and remote part of the state. The isolated location of the Nation has made employment opportunities and economic development difficult; the average income of its tribal citizens falls well below both the state and national averages and there are few job opportunities available locally. To compound the problem, there is also a higher cost of living in the area. Many tribal citizens must travel over a 100 miles to reach a city where basic supplies like groceries and dry goods are available at more reasonable prices. In the past, federal funds constituted a large portion of the Nation's budget, along with royalties from oil and natural gas production. However, changing market conditions and federal priorities have affected tribal funding and made self-sustaining economic development efforts ever more pressing.

In response to this need for change, a member of the Board of Directors approached the Blackfeet Tribal Council with a new model for economic development that differed dramatically from the one in place. This model allows for a separation of business operations from tribal politics through the creation of an independent committee to manage business affairs. In 1999, after a great deal of struggle and debate, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council approved the establishment of the for-profit Siyeh Corporation as a federally chartered corporation, under Section 17 of the IRA.

The Siyeh Corporation was established to generate business, produce revenue, spark job creation, and advance economic self-determination. Taking its name from a Blackfeet warrior who was revered for his fearless leadership, the spirit of Siyeh, according to tribal elders, embodies independent thinking, shouldering responsibility for the work to be done, and taking bold action. The Siyeh Corporation was designed with these things in mind. Today the Corporation controls six tribal businesses that all turn profits and employ over 100 people. In 2004, the payroll exceeded $1 million.

The creation of a sound business model allowed Siyeh to remain independent and to institute good business practices. The Corporation's business governance model specifically restricts Tribal Council members from being a part of Board of Directors. The Board is comprised of six tribal citizens appointed by Tribal Council that serve staggered terms. Board members are required to either have a four-year degree from an accredited institution or have minimum one year of management experience with a successful business. While the Tribal Council relinquished authority to direct day-to-day corporate affairs, the Board of Directors remains accountable to the Blackfeet Nation and its citizen shareholders.

The independence of this model made it possible for Siyeh to survive a political power change before it even opened its doors: when Siyeh began its operations, the Tribal Council that approved the incorporation documents and submitted materials to the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) was no longer in office. To date, Siyeh has worked successfully under three different Tribal Councils. The soundness of the Siyeh's business model is also demonstrated by a high level of accountability, by its dedication to an entrepreneurial spirit, and by its commitment to serve the needs of the community.
 

The Siyeh Corporation has proven that good design and entrepreneurial spirit can lead a nation to realizing goals of economic self-sufficiency and revenue generation in a variety of business settings. Incorporating under a federal charter makes it possible for the Blackfeet Nation to utilize the government's IRA constitution to its advantage. By establishing a separate Board of Directors, Siyeh is able to remain independent from changes in the political leadership of the tribe. In doing these things, the Siyeh Corporation created stable business operations in a changing political environment. This model enables the Blackfeet Nation to create much needed employment opportunities, provide goods and services for the community, and generate strong revenues for a better future for its citizens.

 

Lessons:

  • Clearly defined roles and responsibilities for elected officials and executives in the management and operations of tribal corporations that separate business and politics can allow for better interactions and decision-making around economic ventures.
  • Tribally owned corporations that follow diversified business models promote a robust mix of operations and decrease dependency on one particular business or industry for employment and/or revenues.
  • Community based economic ventures can generate opportunities for employment. This encourages return migration and residency on tribal lands, building a visible and tangible strategy to self-determination.