Charles Archambault remembers the tug-of-war in his soul, his dreams for the future against the pull of the past.
An Assiniboine tribal member, Archambault, 79, grew up knowing only reservation life in Montana and South Dakota. It brought him comfort, surrounded by his people and traditions, but he knew he’d need to branch out.
So he joined the Army and served three years during the Korean War era, the only American Indian in his unit. After he got out, he headed straight to college to study civil engineering.
“I thought if I go home, I’d get trapped in this place,” Archambault said.
Now, Archambault has spent four decades running his own engineering firm in Billings, and his clients include tribes from all over the region. His success as a private entrepreneur is something other tribal members are saying they should emulate.
Dozens of tribal members and statewide officials recently attended an economic development conference at the Crowne Plaza hotel in downtown Billings. The three-day event was sponsored by the Native American Development Corporation, which helps
tribes encourage entrepreneurship and business growth.
The conference, in its fifth year in Billings, included speakers and panel discussions designed to help tribes become more business-friendly.
“That’s the role of tribal leadership — to set the stage for entrepreneurship. Tribal members are the entrepreneurs,” said speaker Waylon Honga, an Arizona-based consultant and former council member of the Hualapai tribe near the Grand Canyon.
Organizers are hoping that conference attendees can take these ideas back to their reservations, which are struggling while Montana’s economy continues to grow. Unemployment rates in Indian country are in double digits, poverty is high on the seven reservations in the state and privately owned businesses are few.
Developing an economic base has proved challenging for some tribes because of unstable political leadership, scarce loans for development and lack of infrastructure, tribal development experts say.
Other times, a tribe’s desire to preserve its heritage conflicts with development opportunities. Last month, the Crow tribe shut down a $15 million federal high-speed Internet construction project, citing concerns that workers could mishandle or damage cultural artifacts.
Honga said his own tribe faced a similar decision in Arizona three decades ago. Planners wanted to build a new interstate highway atop the famed Route 66 that ran directly through Hualapai territory, so they sought tribal leaders’ help.
Worried about further desecrating the land, the tribe said no, and Interstate 40 went a different route nearby, Honga said. Traffic along Route 66 slowed, and Hualapai restaurants, hotels, gas stations and other businesses dried up.
It was a tough decision, Honga said, adding that’s he’s unsure he would’ve done anything different. But the repercussions to tribal finances were undeniable, he said.
“I don’t know if my tribe’s leaders understood the economic consequences of those decisions, but it was disastrous,” Honga said.
Conference organizers said they’re trying to help tribes generate development without sacrificing their identities. This includes developing uniform procedures to start reservation businesses, accessing federal loans designed for tribes and navigating regulatory requirements.
“There are a lot of resources. There’s a lot of opportunity out there. They just need to know how you can get access to them,” said Leonard Smith, director of the Native American Development Corporation.
Archambault said those opportunities come with challenges. Tribes need to improve infrastructure, such as water and sewer systems, to attract private business partners, he said.
They also can’t be afraid to help their own people stand out and succeed, he said. Tribal culture has traditionally valued the group over the individual, which can be a problem for growing entrepreneurs, Archambault said.
It’s a challenge he said he faced striking out on his own.
“If you … break away from the group and become successful, there’s a lot of jealousy,” Archambault said.
It’s something that must be overcome for tribes to build their economies; otherwise they risk their people living in poverty, he said.
“Poverty means you don’t believe in yourself anymore. You’ve just given up,” Archambault said.