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The Accomac business model

Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel

Editor's note: Earlier this year, the Alaska Federation of Natives sponsored Native Insight: Thoughts on Recession, Recovery & Opportunity, an essay contest that asked competitors to offer their perspectives on the current economic and political landscape, as well as thoughts and ideas related to economic renewal. Seven winners were recognized at AFN's annual convention in Anchorage in October, and they will share $60,000 in prize money. Alaska Dispatch is pleased to be able to publish the winning essays, which will appear over the course of this week. The following is Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel's winning essay, "The Accomac Business Model."

Our Native communities have survived long enough to see some of our ancient values -- like respect for women and Mother Earth -- fall in line with the ideals of the rest of the world. When I Googled the United Nations' web site, I found a section called "Women Watch," promoting the rights of women. Another header brought me to "The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs." It featured an indigenous people's discussion on the arctic, and related issues of climate change. Clearly, Respect for Women and the Protection of Mother Earth are ancient Native values which are now idealized by the modern global community.

In the business world, however, we have always been hesitant to assert our Native values. Deep down inside, we still assume that business is not our area of expertise. That is a mistake. Nowadays, the light of world opinion shines brightly on corporate greed, making this the perfect time to promote an alternative, Native, business paradigm.

Over the last few centuries, we have successfully adapted to new occupations and enterprises. In my tribe, we traditionally fed our families by working as hunters, fishermen, and planters of corn. We later became carpenters, housekeepers and stone masons. More recently, some tribal citizens have even been educated as lawyers, teachers, nurses and CEOs. What is amazing is not how much our livelihoods have changed, but that we still have people who choose to be hunters, fishermen and planters of corn. We did not lose all of our ancient ways. We only added new ones. That is the strength of Native societies. We do not sacrifice the old for the new. We know that we need old lessons, as well as new ones, to survive over the long term.

In my language we call this longer, broader view of things the Accomac perspective. Accomac literally translates to mean "the long view from across the water," or in more familiar terms, "seeing the forest from the trees." Success in business should depend on an Accomac view. In this essay, I call for a sustainable Native business plan using the Accomac Model in which we look at our businesses with Native eyes, focused on long term goals.

We, Natives, have more to offer in terms of business savvy than we think. We simply need to foster a business paradigm that reflects our culture. My tribe started to create such a model with a training program called "The Spirit of Aquai," but we still have a very long way to go. In it, we present employees with norms of tribal conduct, as our company's standard. One of those norms is the primacy of respect for all people. Many languages are spoken at our business and our Chairman leads by example, attempting to address many different language speakers in their Native tongue. As a typical Native community whose language was long forbidden in our local schools, we understand the importance of respecting people's native tongues.

This example of a Native corporate value shows that our ways do not have to be used to foster insularity. Rather, I believe that Native nations should share more, not less with one other and the world at large. We must not only share through blogs and meetings, but also through venues provided by non-Indian institutions. Take Dartmouth College's "Occum Scholars" program, in which Native students travel to different reservations to meet with traditional and business leaders. Those students share and absorb information about the cultures and economies of other tribes. I single out this program, because it shows that some of the best and brightest Indian youth are choosing to learn about tradition and business development, in tandem. Perhaps these young people will be the ones to create a successful, new Native business paradigm.

A projected Accomac business model must also address the way Native communities spend money. We know that we allocate funds to forward the goals of the group, not the individual. We also know that money is usually spent on both preserving the things of the past and creating opportunity for the next generation. For example, as soon as my tribe's economic enterprise generated its first positive cash flow, we funded the preservation and reclamation of sacred sites, housing for our elders, tribal health, and college tuition. When Native communities enjoy healthy economies, Native people take comfortable steps, backward and forward, at the same time. We consider not only where we come from, but where we are going, many generations from now. Like some other tribes, my people describe this non-linear movement using The Tree of Life. We say that our elders form the tree's roots and our children are its branches. We know that we must care for the roots and the branches, as well as the trunk of the tree, made up by the rest of us, who are somewhere in the middle.

As someone who truly lives and works in the middle of a tribal world, I often see hostility between the proponents of cultural and business interests. That situation exists not because both sides necessarily have different goals, but because many Natives equate good business with the values of the Non-Indian world. That means that many traditionally-minded folks feel compelled to oppose tribal business development, because they sense that it is eroding tribal culture. I work in my tribe's cultural department, so I sometimes hear culture-advocates saying that they wish our business would go under, so tribal people can focus wholly on culture. This sort of attitude makes business-minded Natives defensive. They do not see how they can successfully promote tribal economic enterprises and participate in cultural activities, without exposing themselves to ridicule. Their discomfort often triggers a knee-jerk reaction, in which they defend non-Native business practices and values, rather than separating good economics from tag-along values which are anathema to their own.

Because the global values of the planet are changing, there is no need for Natives to continue to follow an outdated Non-Indian business model in pursuit of tribal economic development. Now is a good time to consider something better. Only when we, Natives, conduct our businesses according to our own values will we truly flourish over the long term. Only then can we look to a sustainable economic future with confident and contented Native eyes. Now is the time to take the Accomac view.

Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel belongs to the Mohegan Tribe of Indians of Connecticut and lives in Old Mistic, CT.