BELCOURT, N.D. — Lisa Rogers has helped raise dozens of children through her child care center that's just yards from where she herself grew up as a girl.
But now, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit her 15-year-old business hard, and as an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, she said she's had an extremely difficult time accessing funds that are available to other North Dakota small businesses.
She said if she does not receive funds fast, she might have to close her child care. In that case, she would join the roughly one-third of Native American-owned businesses in the state that have permanently gone out of business since the pandemic hit the U.S., according to estimates from the North Dakota Indian Business Alliance.
North Dakota has about 800 to 1,000 Native American-owned businesses, said Allen Nygard, the alliance's executive director, and about half of them are on reservations, mostly Turtle Mountain and Fort Berthold.
North Dakota has received $1.25 billion in federal stimulus funding to ease financial burdens brought on by the pandemic. The North Dakota Emergency Commission approved the distribution of millions of dollars to various state agencies, and some have used the funds to create loans or grants for the state's small businesses to stay afloat. However, many Native-owned businesses are not eligible because they are licensed or certified with their tribe and not the state.
"We're not looking to change laws or to change anything that would give us a competitive advantage," Nygard said. "We're just saying, 'Help us in the same way that others have been helped.'"
Back in March, Gov. Doug Burgum announced that North Dakota child care providers would receive up to $11 million a month in emergency state grants. However, Rogers, along with other child care businesses owned by enrolled Turtle Mountain members, said they were told they were not eligible because they are located on the reservation.
Nygard said there's no reason why tribal members should be excluded from receiving state aid that's available to other businesses in North Dakota.
"We are citizens of the state of North Dakota, and we should have access and we should be given an opportunity, much as you would find with anybody else," Nygard said. "The state has made exceptions for agriculture. The state has made exceptions for energy .... Why not Native businesses?"
The North Dakota Department of Commerce said in a statement that it's worked diligently with tribes to provide aid to tribal businesses. There was some talk about part of the $1.25 billion in federal stimulus funding going specifically to tribes, according to the statement. But since North Dakota's five tribes received a total of about $109 million of their own stimulus funding, the department said that allocation from the state's funding was no longer needed.
Earlier this month, the Department of Commerce announced the creation of its Economic Resiliency Grant, in which applicants can qualify to receive up to $50,000 for investments in their facilities, business systems, equipment or supplies to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and inspire consumers to return to the marketplace. The new grant is designed to address concerns about the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan, and allow businesses licensed with tribes to be eligible, according to the department.
“The Economic Resiliency Grant program was specifically designed based on feedback from the tribal community and will provide an opportunity for tribal businesses to apply for financial assistance. Grant applications will be available later this month,” Department of Commerce Commissioner Michelle Kommer said in a statement.
While the new grant is laudable, Nygard said, it still does not put Native-owned businesses on the same playing field as others, as many tribal businesses were not able to apply for the operational funds that were available to everyone else months ago.
'Not about making a buck'
Cathie Gladue, 63, runs a child care center less than a half mile from Rogers. She started her business in 2005 because of her grandchildren, and she wanted her center to be a place where she could employ people and help children and parents.
Gladue's business has remained open throughout the pandemic, but she said she will have to make some tough decisions regarding her child care center within the next few weeks.
Nygard said many Native-owned businesses are cash-only or use bartering as a main payment method because it better meets the needs of those in the community. Businesses are run so people can give back to one another, and that is often a person's motivation for starting a business on a reservation, he said.
"The economy works differently, but it works," he said. "It's not about making a buck, and none of these folks want to be millionaires. They just want enough so that they can live comfortably and help their family and their community."
'They're legitimate businesses'
Because tribal nations are sovereign, it creates complications for business owners when seeking funds from traditional banks, said Scott Davis, executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission.
Many Native-owned businesses operate in ways that are best suited for their communities, but bankers may be more unwilling to work with them than those that are more traditionally operated and aid them with loans or grants. Some businesses have never worked with a bank before, Nygard said.
Stewart Medrud owns Stu’s Furniture in Belcourt, which has been open for about a year. He said he was able to receive $16,500 in Paycheck Protection Program funds for his business because he is registered with both the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and the state.
Medrud, an enrolled Turtle Mountain member, said he knew he could operate his business easier and have access to state aid if he was licensed with the state in addition to the tribe. He has stayed open throughout the pandemic.
"I think some of these tribal businesses need to consider licensing with the state," Medrud said. "How are they going to know if you're legit if you're not registered?"
Davis said that if a tribal business is currently struggling, he recommends licensing with the state and looking to their tribal government for aid, as every tribe has received federal stimulus funding. Though Davis said certification with the state is a "good step," it is still important to recognize businesses that are registered with their tribes.
"Regardless of who they're certified by or licensed by, they still should be eligible for these grants and loans because they're legitimate businesses. They provide services," Davis said.
Rogers said she thinks more needs to be done for Native-owned businesses, and though she believes Burgum has upheld his promise to engage and include the tribal nations in statewide decisions, this needs to be reevaluated.
"It's just really disheartening," Rogers said. "You feel like you're not good enough for help because of what your nationality is and where you live."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at firstname.lastname@example.org.