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Remarks at White House American Indian and Alaska Native Business Council Meeting

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank
Remarks at White House American Indian and Alaska Native Business Council Meeting

Thank you, Director Hinson. It’s great to be here with top business leaders from the many American Indian and Alaska Native communities across our nation.  

I’d like to briefly introduce Dee Alexander, my senior adviser for Native American Affairs. Dee is from the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes. She played a major role in American Indian and Alaska Native policy at the Census Bureau.  

More recently, she developed the Commerce Department’s new tribal consultation policy – the result of President Obama’s order to all federal agencies to establish such a policy.

Truly, the president gets it when it comes to Indian Country.  As you may know, over the past three years:

  • The president has embraced and strengthened the government-to-government relationship. . . .
  • the administration as a whole has listened to and learned from the 565 federally-recognized tribes through efforts such as the three White House Tribal Nations Conferences. . .
  • and–most importantly–agencies across the federal government have taken concrete actions in areas ranging from improving health care in tribal communities, to making tribal communities safer, to resolving disputes that had gone on far too long.

Today, I want to focus on how far we’ve come in ensuring that businesses and workers throughout Indian Country are bouncing back.

Back in 2008, our economy was spiraling downward. The financial system was inches away from a full collapse. Housing prices plummeted, as did the stock market.  And employers were shedding 750,000 jobs a month.

Today, we’ve still got much more work to do, but because of the steps the president tookcombined with the hard work and resilience of businesses some of you operate, we’ve now had 30 straight months of job growth totaling 4.6 million new private-sector jobs.

Now, we can all agree that growth hasn’t been as fast as we’d like. It’s taking time to recover, unemploymemt has come down, but it’s still too high, and we still have headwinds like the Eurozone crisis and sporadic spikes in oil prices.

But despite these challenges, our economy has been growing and will continue to grow.

Our goal now is to accelerate this growth… to make sure that it translates into greater prosperity and opportunities for families in and from Indian Country… and to make sure that everyone who wants a job has a job.

I have been asked to highlight some examples of how our bureaus at the Commerce Department are doing this – and I’m happy to do so.

First, I should highlight the work of the Minority Business Development Agency, because they’ve been working aggressively to help Native-owned businesses. 

  • For example, I know that many folks in this community gave input to MBDA’s reorganization plan.  Thank you for your contributions. 
    • We redirected our money from regional administrative offices to expand outreach through new Business Centers. 
    • Two weeks ago, those efforts came to fruition…
  • We announced the winners of a grant competition for $6.6 million to operate five new Business Centers in areas with a high concentration of American Indian and Alaska Native entrepreneurs and firms.  They are:
    • The United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck
    • Rural Enterprises of Oklahoma in Tulsa
    • The Native American Contractors Association in Anchorage
    • The American Indian Chamber of Commerce of New Mexico in Santa Fe
    • And Asian, Inc., which is expanding its mission of serving the Asian-American community in San Francisco… to include serving the American Indian community in Fresno, California
  • These Centers will provide more entrepreneurs and business owners across the country with the tools they need to grow, compete, form partnerships, and create jobs.

 And at the same time that this new structure was being set up, Director Hinson’s team has still been able to serve record numbers of Native-owned businesses.

  • For example, last fiscal year, MBDA helped Native-owned businesses gain access to over half-a-billion dollars – a 62 percent increase over 2010.
  • Overall, in the past 3 years, MBDA helped nearly 2,000 Native American-owned businesses secure a total of over $1.1 billion in both contracts and capital.  (I think that deserves a hand for Director Hinson.)

A second example of how the Commerce Department supports this community is the work we do through the Economic Development Administration – EDA. 

  • EDA has made – and continues to make – critical investments that accelerate business development in economically distressed tribal areas. 
  • Sometimes, just a small investment from EDA can go a long way – such as in remote parts of Alaska. 
    • For example, in 2009 we provided $100,000 to support the Native-run tannery in a village of about 500 people near the Bering Strait.  As you know, businesses like that form a crucial backbone for local economies.
  • EDA also gives larger awards that impact broader communities.
    • For example, with a grant for $1.7 million last year, we’re supporting about 20 tribes in the Dakotas and Montana. 
    • They’re developing jobs in the field of environmental risk mitigation along the Missouri river.
    • They are working with local tribal and technical colleges – a smart strategy.  Their goal is to train 1,000 people and create about 15 new businesses along the way.

Of course, another key way to spur economic development is by investing in infrastructure…

So let me mention the work of a third bureau of the Commerce Department – the National Telecommunications and Information Administration – NTIA.

  • As we all know, many tribal communities still lack access to one of the most transformative technologies in the global economy – broadband.
    • With funding from the Recovery Act, we’ve been working with local businesses and tribal authorities to tackle this challenge.
  • For example, NTIA awarded $32 million to bring hundreds of miles of broadband to rural Navajo Nation in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico.
    • This project – about three-fourths complete – will bring new opportunities to about 30,000 households, 1,000 businesses, and hundreds of other educational and healthcare facilities. 
    • In some cases, these communities didn’t even have phone lines, so we’re taking not just a step forward in telecommunications… but in fact, a giant leap.

And while the work of the bureaus at the Commerce Department (MBDA, EDA, NTIA and others) have all been crucial to helping Native communities begin to bounce back…

I’d be remiss not to mention that our partners across the Administration stand right there beside us.

  • For example, the Recovery Act has helped unlock credit for small businesses at a time when banks simply weren’t lending. 
    • Between 2009 and 2011, over 1,000 SBA loans totaling over $300 million went to small businesses owned by American Indians or Alaska Natives. 
    • This helped businesses not only keep their doors open, but create jobs and emerge stronger.
  • A more recent example is the Department of Treasury’s announcement in July to create more flexible terms for the $2 billion in Recovery Act funds for Tribal Economic Development Bond allocations.   
    • Funds were going unused because of a restriction that said the funding must support government buildings. 
    • But under the new guidance, tribes can issue tax-exempt debt for a wider range of economic development projects.

I’ll close by mentioning one more very clear illustration of just how powerful we can be when we work together.

 As you may have heard, the 2010 Census at the Commerce Department was a success in many ways.  It was on-time, under-budget and extremely accurate.

 Put simply, we couldn’t have done that without the strong partnership and advocacy of leaders like you.  You raised awareness and, as a result, 5.2 million people – 1.7% of the U.S. population – identified themselves as American Indian or Alaska Native, in whole or in part.

That was a staggering 27 percent jump from 2000.  

Not only is that important to help us gain a better understanding of who we are as a country…

… but it opens people’s eyes to the fact that the contributions from Indian Country not just to our economy – but also to our society and our culture overall – are much more powerful than perhaps many recognized.

So my commitment to all of you today is this: 

This administration will continue to listen closely to the leaders in and from Indian Country.  And then we’ll take action as we have over the past 3 years.

To move forward, we know that we need to be smart about the policies that we enact in the public sector.  But we also will need the ongoing hard work, entrepreneurship, and investment that our private sector has always provided – including that of the American Indian and Alaska Native business leaders in this room. 

Your efforts are crucial if we are going to grow the economy at all levels – from our remote villages to our major cities.

So let’s make good choices now, and lay the foundation for stable, long-term growth that will bring more jobs and more prosperity throughout our diverse communities and across the U.S.

Thank you.