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Native American Heritage Month

In Focus

Harvard, like so many American institutions, is addressing its uneven history with Native American people while also nurturing the next generations of Native students.

A plaque on Matthews Hall reflects on the Harvard Indian College, established to educate Native American students.

Acknowledgement of Land and People

Harvard University is located on the traditional and ancestral land of the Massachusett, the original inhabitants of what is now known as Boston and Cambridge. We pay respect to the people of the Massachusett Tribe, past and present, and honor the land itself which remains sacred to the Massachusett People.

Learn more from the Harvard University Native American Program

Community engagement

The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, along with many other centers at Harvard, is using research and service to foster sustained, self-determined social and economic development among American Indian nations.

Read more stories of building and rebuilding healthy, vibrant nations

Watch the Honoring Nations 2021 Awards Presentations

Chris James in a suit

In the people business

Harvard student and president and CEO of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development Chris James discusses the huge need for business infrastructure and entrepreneurship development in Native American communities.


Jason Newton: Most Americans know, in a general sense, what a Native American Reservation is, and that groups of Native Americans were forced to move to them by the government of the United States throughout our country’s history.

Rachel Traughber: What you may not know is that many of these land tracts are among some of the most rural in the country – cut off from the U.S. economy and lacking in critical infrastructure and services. That reality is one factor which has led to high-poverty and limited business development opportunities for generations of Native people.

JN: Harvard Extension School student Chris James is working to change that. A former Associate Administrator at the U.S. Small Business Administration, he’s the President and CEO of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise, the largest Native American economic development organization in the United States.

RT: James has spent his life developing programs to help support the creation and growth of economic opportunity for Native Americans across the country. He joins us now to share more about his work with the National Center.

I’m Rachel Traughber, and I’m Jason Newton. And this is Unequal: a Harvard University series about race and inequality across the United States.

JN: Chris, welcome. And thank you for joining us. So I wanted to ask what drew you to working with small businesses and specifically Native American businesses?

Chris James: Well, thank you so much. You know, the biggest thing for me is I grew up in Cherokee North Carolina, on the Qualla Boundary, which is our reservation for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. And my family for generations have had some type of small business commerce. I actually worked for my dad, in a in a small restaurant for years, my grandmother was a beader. And she had a she had a craft shop. So I, myself always had a passion for small business. And, and it was almost in my my blood. So that’s, that’s how I started working in small business. And then as I, as I continued to work on the reservation, I really got into economic development, and how can I support small businesses on the reservation was really important to me. And it just led to other opportunities in my life.

CJ: You know, there’s a huge need for business development in our Native American communities. Some of our communities are some of the most rural in United States, high poverty areas, and, and really lacks sometimes the infrastructure for business development because of the remoteness and ruralness of our communities.

JN: So you touched on the economic life on reservations all across the country, and it brings up the question for me personally, you know, can you explain some of the dynamics around what may have created such a concentration of poverty on Native reservations?

CJ: There has been hundreds and hundreds of years of relocation for our tribal communities. So for example, you know, a lot of the southeast tribes, majority of the southeast tribes were removed during the removal act in the 1800s. When those communities were moved from their existing homelands, oftentimes, they were put in a reservation community in an environment that they did not understand or even know. And it could be hundreds and hundreds of miles away from from their traditional homelands. So the traditional hunting and the traditional farming and all the things that that community had done for thousands and thousands of years, all of a sudden, that community is in a totally different environment, with totally different land and totally different types of hunting and environments. So that I think started it.

A second piece of that is the reservation system were often in very rural areas. So the ruralness, the isolation was also a factor to to high poverty in in those areas.

And then lastly, a lot of those communities were totally reliant on federal government. And unfortunately, with the overload over reliance on the federal government, there wasn’t the infrastructure development to foster businesses and to to create a system of entrepreneurship and communities.

Now, a lot of that is changing. And it has been changing for the past 20 to 30 years. Part of that is, is some of our communities, not only develop gaming enterprises, but they developed other types of business enterprises that actually support economic development and support their community. And then second, over the past 20 or 30 years, there’s also been increase support for entrepreneurship development. And organizations like myself, we really focus on that individual entrepreneur, helping them develop businesses and create jobs in the community and, and really foster an environment of success. And we also help the tribes do the same. What type of businesses can a tribe create, to, to help support the community and help bring in not only revenue for the community, but also jobs.

RT: You’re president and CEO of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development. Tell us a little bit about the Center. What is it and how did you become involved?

CJ: The National Center is a nonprofit organization that focuses on business enterprise development in Native American communities. The Center’s been around since 1969. It’s a 50-year-old organization. And really, it has supported billions of dollars worth of contracts to Native American businesses, including tribally owned businesses, through various types of procurement. We’ve also helped foster an ecosystem of entrepreneurship through training and technical assistance to our Native American business owners. And we’ve also supported thousands and thousands of job creation in Indian Country.

My involvement of the National Center was that I left the federal government in 2016. And and I left Washington DC, with the desire to get back to my roots. And my roots were what is economic development in Native American communities. So I felt like I could help continue the growth of the National Center. I laid out a five-year strategic plan to really focus on those core core tasks of developing businesses. We also started focusing on access to capital, and we’ve developed a Native CDFI that launches this year. And we really bolster a pipeline to support Native youth so that they can be prepared to start businesses when they’re ready. We also work with Fortune 500 companies, to help with their supply chains, and to bring in more Native American businesses in their supply chain, or into their workforce.

RT: Chris, I’m wondering if you could share with us what are some of the unique challenges that come with running a business on a reservation?

CJ: You know, Rachel, I think some of the unique challenges of running a business on a reservation is one, oftentimes, because of the overall remoteness of our reservation communities. You know, there’s, there’s not the normal commerce, like oftentimes, there’s no banking, you know, there’s, there’s no, if you need to get supplies, there’s not a Costco for your business. So a lot of times, just overall distance is a hindrance, you may have to drive two to three hours to get to a more urban market.

Last week, I was in rural Alaska. And I was in a village called Kiana, and Kiana is north of the Arctic Circle. It’s a village of about 300 people, the only way into the village is, is by plane. And the overall infrastructure and a community like that, how do you do commerce? How do you even get goods? You know, the closest bank is 1000 miles away. So how do you? How do you do commerce? And, and I think that, that leads to some unique, unique challenges, but also a wait, you know, out of the box, thinking of how to build and grow businesses in rural American and reservation and rural communities. So, you know, the unique the unique challenges are infrastructure, the banking system, sometimes lack of technology or internet, and then even sometimes lack of a workforce, or even customers.

RT: So Chris, you know, the story about you going to Alaska and being close to the Arctic Circle really brings home to me the understanding that there is a wide variety of tribal nations that you have to work with on a regular basis. You know, there are 574 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations across the United States. Each has their own custom, their own culture, their own economic needs, given this variety, this diversity, the fact that they’re so specific to their locations, and those different needs, how do you approach creating or customizing programs at a national level that can reach as many people as possible?

CJ: Rachel, that’s a great question and and the National Center we spend a lot of time listening to our community members and our business owners to try to understand the unique situations we have. We have clients from Alaska all the way to Florida, all the way to New York. And each one of those clients they do, they, they are like you, like you said, you know, they’re they’re all different different communities, different infrastructure. So possibly working with a community in Alaska is is very different than working with a community in Oklahoma. And and those businesses are often different as well. So our general approach is, you know, developing us a system, where we’re able to provide a lot of individual support. So we don’t really have, you know, we don’t do like a one fit all approach. Every time we develop a program, we run training programs, every month, we do webinars every other week, we customize that program for that particular community or that particular state, even oftentimes. So when we do a training in Alaska, it’s very customized to Alaska, and we do our own research and our own listening sessions, so that we meet the needs of the businesses in that community. So we’ve done, we did an event in the Carolinas, also about a month ago. And again, those needs of those businesses and what type of training those businesses wanted, was very different than what we’ve done in Northern California. So making sure that we listen, and then help develop a program that those those businesses are those tribes, you know, will be, will be very beneficial, helping them helping develop a program that’s very beneficial to the community.

JN: So you touched on, you know, some of the various challenges, you know, that affects what may or may not be successful. Can you maybe point to some of the success stories, like what types of businesses are successful, or sustainable in terms of revenue?

CJ: There’s thousands of different types of businesses out there that the tribes themselves have created to help bolster economic development, that also includes the gaming industry. But surprisingly, the gaming industry is a very small percentage of, of overall revenue, a very small percentage of the tribes actually rely on gaming, probably about 80% of the tribes actually have to have some other type of revenue in their communities.

Secondly, for the entrepreneurs, they’ve created businesses, from large construction companies to hospitality and retail, to arts and entertainment type businesses as well. So there, there are hundreds of different types of businesses on reservation communities, and a lot of those businesses are really doing well. Of course, COVID, has taken a huge impact in our communities all over the United States, but specifically in Native American communities, but our businesses are resilient. And, and they, you know, they are looking to grow and change and, and, you know, build economies in their community.

JN: That actually touches on a question that I wanted to bring up, you know, you mentioned COVID-19, and how it dramatically affected businesses on reservations, you know, businesses in the United States and globally, have also been affected drastically by the pandemic. So the businesses that you support, how did they fare overall throughout the pandemic? And and what’s the method of recovery from, from this as we start to hopefully, pull out of the pandemic for good?

CJ: Yeah, well, you know, we definitely can’t gloss over the realities of what COVID has done. all over the United States, but specifically in Indian Country. Nationwide, our casinos, a lot of our casinos closed their doors, oftentimes, in in many of those areas, that was the only employer. You know, the casino was one of the only employer not only for the reservation community, but also the trickle effect surrounding communities. And so you’re talking about almost a billion dollars, just in lost wages, from having the casino revenue closed up. So that that revenue when the businesses are closing, and then the tribal businesses are closing, that means that there’s a loss of jobs, a loss of of tax revenue in some areas. You know, and just, you know, just a lot of loss because of that one particular business.

For our small businesses, the National Center partnered with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis to do a business survey, and this was about a year ago. So a lot of the businesses and the businesses are still struggling, but about 68% of our businesses have seen at least a 20 to 40% revenue reduction nationwide. And then also, for that revenue for those tribally owned businesses, some of those tribally owned businesses have had an 80% loss and that is you Mainly because of just just closures.

So you can see that that that impact. You know, we all of us see the impact throughout the United States, I mean, everything that we do every day. But then if you add the, you know, rural community, if you add high poverty in, in these areas, that impact is, is even higher. And, and some of those businesses are really small, small businesses. In fact, we found, like one in six businesses have said that they are just not even able to get back open. And that is something that the National Center has really been working hard on how can we help our businesses diversify? And how can we help them get back in operation, and what other support is out there to keep those businesses going? So we did a lot of support on on PPP programs in the SBA restaurant revitalization program. So a lot of like, information, and helping our clients apply for those funding sources.

RT: That actually leads me into my next question for you, which is, how can people listening today be supportive of native business?

CJ: I think, you know, folks that are listening today really need to understand the diversity of, of what our native communities are. And, and actually, there are a lot of opportunities for those companies, you know, for people to you know, diversify their workforce and diversify their supply chains and add more vendors that are from the Native American communities. We have so many businesses that are not only doing government contracting, but they’re working with with large companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing. So, you know, there’s a lot of opportunities, folks should not forget that, that Native American businesses are out there. And that they’re very, they’re very diversified businesses.

A second piece is, you know, there’s lots of opportunity to make impact investments into the Native American community. That could be looking at opportunities directly supporting Native community development, financial institutions, that could be looking for opportunities to, you know, connect with an actual tribal enterprise, and, and develop the commerce on a reservation.

And then lastly, there’s also the ability to have mentors and leadership development. So folks that that might be listening to this, there’s those type of opportunities. They can reach out to organizations like myself and say, How can we support if we want to be a mentor? Or maybe we have, you know, a curriculum development to help support businesses? How can we how can we donate some of our time to help support Native American infrastructure? There’s lots of nonprofits out there like myself that that, you know that that can be a resource for your listeners.

JN: That was Harvard Extension School student Chris James, President and CEO of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development.

RT: If you liked what you heard, and want to learn more about Harvard’s Unequal project, visit us online at

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London Vallery is documenting the important role of Indigenous astronomy within her community and working to improve Indigenous representation in aerospace.

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A woman smiling

Better college access for Native people

Only about 14% of Native American people attend college, and many often don’t graduate. Tarajean Yazzie-Mintz, currently the CEO of First Light Education, has spent decades trying to lower the many barriers facing Native young people as they try to access higher education.


Jill Anderson: I am Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. Tarajean Yazzie-Mintz knows about the many barriers facing Native people in getting to college. She spent the past few decades working across the sector, creating better access to education. Still, there’s this invisibility that’s unique to Native people she says. Only about 14% of Native Americans attend college and many often leave. I asked Tarajean about the struggles facing young Native people trying to access higher education in America.

Tarajean Yazzie-Mintz: For people from Native communities to make their way to college, the conversation has happened at an early age. Our schools that are preparing young people for that opportunity need to have that conversation. So the way in which we flow into institutions of higher education is one area that we can look and understand what’s going on in terms of college access for American Indian, Alaskan Natives in the United States. That’s one line. There’s a whole another way to think about lifelong learning and career opportunities. And so the flip side of that is that we don’t ask what are Native families, Native individuals engaged in if they don’t go to college? And it’s not as if nothing’s happening, there’s a lot of other kinds of opportunities that people might take advantage of. Become entrepreneurs, work within our tribal governments and work within school systems at levels where they may not need a college education.

There’s two sides to that question. There is, when we get to just focus on the college question though, the idea of helping Native students stay in college and graduate, persist and graduate. It’s a whole different conversation when you’re talking about institutions made for, that weren’t developed by Native communities. So we have a whole system out there called tribal colleges and universities. Those are higher ed institutions that were developed by tribal communities or tribal nations. Those kinds of institutions are different than say going to a state college or community college or a place like Harvard. Different purposes for how they were built as institutions and different strategies for what a student might get in those institutions. In terms of support, emotional, social support, academic support, opportunities for career pathways. So all of those pieces come together and I think it’s a really important question for institution of higher education to think about, what are we offering in terms of a holistic model to students who historically this has not been their path to gaining a higher education, gaining other pathways to different kinds of careers that require a college degree.

What does that look like? I think is really critical to think about.

Jill Anderson: Would you be willing to share some of your own story because clearly you’ve gone very far with your own education?

Tarajean Yazzie-Mintz: Well, I think my story may match with some Native individuals out there, but it’s also very, I think, unique. I am a daughter of educators, so I grew up in a family where both of my parents had master’s degrees. And if you can imagine that already sets you up for a particular kind of experience in life and knowledge about what all the different opportunities along the way might be in terms of education. And I also had the opportunity to go to a private preparatory school for high school away from my home community. So I grew up in the Navajo nation and when I got to high school I went to a Quaker boarding school outside of Philadelphia. And that experience opened up the world for me in terms of thinking about college in a different way, because college was always a conversation in our family because my parents went to college, earned their graduate degrees.

All of those things, if you can imagine credit stacking up on top of each other over time and experiences, the trajectory that I’ve had is coming out of that environment growing up and then each of those networks then grows upon itself. So I eventually went to Arizona State University where a different kind of experience was going there and being educated again with other Native students. Because when I went to my preparatory school, I was the only Native student other than my sister who was also there for one year while I was going to school. And so going from a predominantly non-Native educational context into college where then I got to reconnect with other Native students who are also going to college, it just shifted what my experience was like in a state university. And then that flipped again when I went and came here to Harvard to work on my doctorate, coming to a predominantly White institution and being one of maybe three people who are working on a Ph.D. at the time.

And then one of maybe I think we could count ourselves as something like 30 something students at the time that I was here, Native students across the entire system of college all the way up to the PhD programs. Now today I think we’re over a hundred maybe even 200 here at Harvard I think. My experience is always been backed up by the fact that both of my parents were educators, deeply rooted in this idea that education is a critical component to helping our communities change. And they were engaged, my parents were engaged in that change on a daily basis. And it’s something that just runs through my veins. My brother is a teacher, my sister is a professor at a university. The idea of ending up being teachers in some level or another was like you just blossom, you grow into that role.

Jill Anderson: What would you say is the more typical experience of a Native person on the reservation, a young person, I guess we should say with education?

Tarajean Yazzie-Mintz: Well, this one’s a hard question because I think those that didn’t have my experience of preparatory education, having opportunity to be mentored by other Natives as well as Native faculty. Others are as successful as I have been, so there’s that. But I think when you refer to that composite of the statistics that we see, those students, those individuals are going through educational systems that are challenging and they can fall into different categories of K-12 education. So it could be a state public school, could be a tribally controlled school, or it could be a federally funded federally controlled school, or it could be a school that is run by a religious organization or be a religious institution. There’s a lot of different kinds of education happening in Native communities across the US. So if you imagine those students in these institutions that I think the biggest disconnect is, what are all of the structures between home and school that elevate or support Native students?

And I would say that they’re not all there for that composite, that picture, that demographic that shows up in the statistics that we see. It’s not just that the education is not of high quality, there’s something else going on I think in terms of the opportunities that these students see both within their family, their community and schools. So there’s a place, if you can imagine a Venn diagram and there’s that little middle point where these circles of support or education for young people, they need to intersect and sometimes they’re not intersecting. So home and school’s not intersecting or home and community or home and school, they’re not intersecting. And when you get the right intersection, I think that that’s where you’re going to see opportunity for success. When you see a disconnection of those pieces, I think what you’re going to see are students who are disconnected from education, disconnected from learning opportunities. There’s a couple of different kinds of studies that are out there that look at the status of education.

The K-12, the National Indian Education Study uses NAEPE scores and takes an intersection of American Indian, Alaskan Natives and takes a look at what’s going on with this group of students. That measures only their ability to read, engage in science, math, and then there’s certain indicators about what success looks like under those components. There’s other ways in which we could be looking at success that we haven’t been really successful at doing. For me, being more of a qualitative researcher, I’m very interested in the intersections between what students get in terms of support and socio-emotional, more holistic composite of success. And that’s a different way to look at what’s happening in Native communities for these students. It’s not a perfect system, I definitely would agree that it’s a very challenging context for Natives to move through and then make their way into a post secondary education experience.

Jill Anderson: One of the things that often comes up is this need to create access and open their doors, but do you think that’s really even enough? When hearing you talk, it feels like it’s less about just opening the doors and more about going and meeting Native people where they are.

Tarajean Yazzie-Mintz: This is going to sound really strange, but the idea of institutions opening their door, it makes me think of hosting. Institutions have to be serious about the idea of hosting people into their spaces in ways that are authentic. And what I mean by that is, I don’t know how to say it differently, but it’s like if you have your own home and you’re inviting someone in, what are all the things you need to do to prepare for that person to be comfortable in your home if you’re a good host? If you’re a good host, you’re going to be thinking about what do they need? Do they have food allergies? Do they have ability issues around walking up the stairs? I mean all these different things come into your mind when you’re preparing to be a good host to a guest. And in higher ed institutions, it’s not enough to say the doors are open, because if you’re not authentic about opening the doors and opening the doors then creates a whole another series of questions around relationship. How do you build that once people walk through the door?

If you’re not thinking about that question, the institution has the ability to push out people who will feel they’re not welcome. And that tends to be a sentiment that is voiced or named or spoken, is that Native students don’t belong in these institutions and they at some point or another may articulate that and then leave. There’s another side of that that I try to think about the way that I, I’ll say survived, was I understood to a pretty good degree what predominantly White institutions were. And I didn’t expect that everything would be easy for me and I didn’t expect for them to know everything about my background as a Native person. I struggled through, but I figured out what were the resources that I needed to be successful and I focused very strongly on academic preparation. What were the tools that were offered on campus to help me learn what I needed to learn academically?

I felt very strongly grounded in my cultural and social foundation that that’s not what I needed when I was in this institutions. I had a very strong understanding of who I am as a Native woman, as a Native college student, I knew who I was, where I came from, who my parents were, and I understood the challenges that my family, cousins went through to be who they are. So to me, to be in these institutions was a luxury. And that for me, contextualizing it that way meant that I could survive going through some of the hardships of the kinds of doubting about feeling you’re ready to be there or that you had the right skills and knowledge to succeed. And yeah, I wasn’t going to be the A student, I might be the barely passing student. But I was going to stay in it and sometimes that could potentially be good enough.

Jill Anderson: What would make an institution a better host for Native people?

Tarajean Yazzie-Mintz: I can only answer it in parts that probably don’t link together very well right now. Being a very observant and planful host means that you know who’s coming to your institution, that you’ve spent some time thinking about what were these young people’s experiences coming to us and they might be diverse. My experience coming in to the ed school would be very different than when, a couple of my colleagues who had different experiences coming in and different support systems. And so knowing what that is, Harvard has the Harvard University Native American Program and that was critical, it was a critical physical space as well as a cultural space. And in all these different institutions, there is a need for a space, a physical space where Native students can go and it provides you that break from all that other stuff that you’re trying to motor through. I think one of the other things about universities and institutions of higher learning is, there is a disconnect between what faculty you’re engaged in and in terms of their teaching and what they’re engaged in in their research.

And what I’ve seen and observed both as a student and then later as a faculty member at any university is faculty’s attention and their worth is determined by their research that they produce. Which takes away from them actually focusing in on the students that they’re trying to teach. It’s not just within the institutions I’ve worked in, but talking with students across the country, with those that are Native students and students who are not White. They experience this, their education is not being taken seriously by faculty members. So in institution of higher learning, it’s a big call to faculty to reconnect with the art of teaching and being connected with the art of teaching means that you pay attention to who you’re teaching. Who’s in your courses, how do you help them learn, not just to push them off onto a teaching assistant teaching fellow, but to care. Those are things that I know higher ed institutions as an entity have a very difficult identity to overcome. And some of the structures within higher ed institutions create that inability to connect with students who are learners, who are coming to these institutions.

And I think about it this way, when I was teaching, I thought about my students as this are the students who need to change the world and I’m going to give them 100% of my time when I’m teaching them. That was a very different philosophy than some of my colleagues in my same department or even my same school of education. Very different way of thinking about how we spend our time and how we invest in the next generation of educators who are going to ultimately be in these classrooms teaching babies all the way up to PhD students. They all need to be taken care of and a really good host, being a really strong teacher is so central in this question about success. If you’re a good teacher, you’re going to know what’s going on with the students that are sitting in your classrooms.

Jill Anderson: Tarajean Yazzie-Mintz is founder and principal consultant of First Light Education. I’m Jill Anderson, this concludes the spring season of the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Look for special episodes of the Harvard EdCast coming this summer. Thanks for listening.


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