Native American-owned businesses provide more than 16,000 jobs and add more than $2 billion to Colorado's economy.
The economic impact findings were announced at a quarterly Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs (CCIA) meeting held in Towaoc on Friday, May 29. CCIA executive director Ernest House, Jr., said a final report based on the three-year study was expected in July.
"Natives make up only 2 percent of the entire state's population," said House, "so this $2 billion impact is really big."
House explained that the economic impact study would provide the empirical data needed for lawmakers, business owners and communities to make more informed decisions on policy issues at local, state and national levels.
"We're currently completing the economic analysis and developing the first draft of the report," said House.
Preliminary results reveal that Native-owned private businesses employ more than 6,500 workers and generate nearly $800 million in direct revenues. Native-focused nonprofits utilize more than 250 employees, creating an $55 million in direct revenue. And the 2,600 Native students who are enrolled in higher education, create more than $22 million in direct revenue.
"Even without the economic impact generated by ventures owned directly by the tribes, which is still being analyzed, Colorado benefits from $1.2 billion in economic activity, nearly $500 million in wages and nearly 9,300 jobs that it wouldn't otherwise have," House said. "Including the direct revenue and employees, those numbers move to over $2 billion in economic activity and over 16,000 jobs."
The Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute Indian reservations are top employers in Montezuma and La Plata counties. Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Heart praised the preliminary findings, saying that tribal members might be small in number, but they were strong for the state's economy.
"Let's keep moving forward," said Heart. "There's a lot of ventures, lots of opportunities."
Representatives from the Rocky Mountain Indian Chamber of Commerce (RMICC) and the Colorado Indian Education Foundation (CIEF) also applauded the economic study.
"This is going to change the narrative," said CIEF spokesperson Darius Smith. "This shows that Natives are contributors."
RMICC executive director Shadana Dickerson agreed, saying that Natives faced constant struggles, and the economic data showed that their voices matter.
"There are over 400 Native businesses across Colorado," said Dickerson. "We are not just consumers."
Off the reservation
At the meeting, Heart also touted the tribe's recent business acquisitions, including last fall's acquisition of the Mesa Verde Pottery shop just east of Cortez, and last month's acquisition of Whiteriver Construction, of Lakeside, Ariz. Heart said Whiteriver was a top competitor for the tribe's own Weeminuche Construction Authority.
"Instead of fighting them, we bought them," Heart said.
"We're expanding," he said. "Moving off the reservation is something new for us, but we have to create more jobs."
Founded by Corydon M. Cooley on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in 1994, Whiteriver Construction expanded from a small local contractor to become one of the fastest-growing businesses in America, according to Inc. Magazine in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Weeminuche Construction Authority was formed in 1985 by the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribe as a tribal-owned business enterprise.
Ute Mountain Ute councilmember Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk said it had been stressful for the tribe to consider outside economic development opportunities, but bold actions were needed in order to drive the tribe's economic future.
"We have to think outside the box," said Lopez-Whiteskunk. "We have to think outside our reservation boundaries."