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GROWNebraskaNative.org builds entrepreneurial community in Whiteclay

Pine Ridge residents working and selling their art.

GROW Nebraska, in partnership with Lakota Hope Ministry and Nebraska Extension, is hoping to bring economic development to the region by supporting new and existing Native-owned businesses on and off the Pine Ridge Reservation with their recently launched online artisan marketplace, GROWNebraskaNative.org.

The idea behind the website is to enable entrepreneurs in the area to network and help each other become an organization recognized nationally for its marketing of Native American Art and Crafts. Then, additional entrepreneurs can use the same principal of networking and training to develop the secondary businesses that come with economic development.

Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home to the Ogalala Lakota Native Americans, is the 8th largest reservation in America. It is also the poorest. The goal of the program is to restore human dignity and cultural pride through economic development.

“Lakota Hope joined GROW Nebraska and we tried to figure out how we could work together and provide some economic stimulus for the clients that [Bruce Bonfleur, Founder and Director of Lakota Hope Ministry] was working with, said Janell Anderson Ehrke, CEO of Grow Nebraska. “[He asked] if there was some way we could provide market access to all the talented people he works with, that way they could get a fair and sustainable price.”

GROW Nebraska has been selling items from the Lakota Crafters on their eBay store for nearly a decade but through grants in 2015, they were able to fund a concept program to assist their Native American clients. That concept program led to the GROW Nebraska Native online shop.

On the streets of neighboring Whiteclay, Nebraska, a drawing by artist Merle Locke would typically sell for under $40. Through the website, that same piece can be sold at a higher price point, allowing Locke to nearly double his profit.

“At the end of the day, the goal is that we are trying to get these products to buyers who will value them and [the artists] get an actual living wage for these products,” said Janell Anderson Ehrke, CEO of Grow Nebraska. “We’re trying to teach our clients that […] this is a sustainable business.”

The program is also providing technical systems training with the first grant. They’ve set up a computer lab on the reservation that houses 6 desktop computers that can be used for business purposes.

The clients of GROW Nebraska Native are also being instructed on things like how gallery fees and commissions work, why they need an artist’s statement, and how to use Facebook for a business.

Ehrke said that Jenny Nixon, Nebraska Extension Educator in Community Vitality, visits the reservation for training in computer literacy and is working on creating a curriculum to enable the crafters to develop business and technology skills.

“Working with the computer lab has been interesting,” said Nixon. “We have a very low literacy rate as far as computer skills, very low literacy in learning how to bank and do things that normal businesses take for granted.”

A meeting in Whiteclay.

Nixon is training the program participants on what technology can do for them, as well as assisting them with product photography, descriptions and pricing. She said that the people in the region have a lot of skills in the artist world, but it’s hard for anyone to make it in that world. GROW Nebraska is focused on giving them business skills that enhance their current talents.

“Confidence is one of the things we work on an awful lot,” said Nixon. “It’s been fun to make those connections and see how those people can grow.”

Right now, GROW Nebraska, Lakota Hope Ministry and Nebraska Extension are guiding the program but they’re working to get more Native Americans involved on an administrative level.

The program has also established the GROW Exchange Store, where participants can earn points to “buy” raw materials and essential tools.

“They cannot buy these materials but by participating in the Grow program, [in things like workshops and mentoring] they get points,” said Bonfleur. “These points then convert to a monetary value.”

A microloan program has also cropped up between the artists. Lenders give out loans to their peers for amounts between $50-100. The amounts of cash loaned out are small, but they enable other artists the opportunity to participate in things like craft shows off the reservation.

GROW Nebraska is happy to see offshoots of the program when they come about. Bonfleur said that the success of the program could enhance entrepreneurship across the region and bring new businesses into adjacent Whiteclay and Sheridan, Nebraska.

“We’re looking forward to a point when we can start working with some secondary businesses down [to Whiteclay’s] Main Street,” said Bonfleur. “We’re developing that cultural heritage, that historical brand, [around] the positive things about the Lakota Nation. Whiteclay is going to be a foundation for that.”

Christine McGuigan is the Associate Editor of Silicon Prairie News.

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