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Indian Days

Dancers make their way around the pow wow grounds during the grand entry at Eastern Shoshone Indian Days in Fort Washakie on June 21. A new startup competition aims to make things easier for Indigenous entrepreneurs in Wyoming.

A new competition could net Wind River entrepreneurs thousands of dollars and guidance to help launch a business while encouraging economic development on the reservation.

The University of Wyoming is sponsoring a startup challenge to give away $25,000 each in seed money to two tribal entrepreneurs with innovative and sustainable business ideas benefiting the Wind River Reservation.

While all proposals will be considered, those related to microbial ecology, the environment and stewardship, land and resource management, or data science are preferred, according to a poster shared at a Wyoming Legislature Select Committee on Tribal Relations meeting last week in Fort Washakie.

“Entrepreneurship isn’t something that we innately have,” James Trosper, Director of UW’s High Plains American Indian Research Institute, said at the meeting. “It’s something that has to be taught and the best way to teach that is by going through the process.”

Those who are part of the competition will get business coaching and guidance. Trosper said they also are planning workshops for community members.

For Indigenous people, including those on Wind River, their history with the federal government has added an extra obstacle when it comes to starting a business, he said.

In exchange for giving up their land and the opportunities that came with the land, the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho people were confined to the Wind River Reservation, with the federal government providing rations. That helped create a “culture of dependency,” Trosper said, adding that “it’s time for us to change that.”

Starting and owning businesses can help to reverse that mindset, he said.

“We don’t want our people to be dependent on the federal government, the state government or even the tribal government,” Trosper said. “So the work that we’re doing through this entrepreneurship competition, we’re really hoping to get a message out there and really start to change the attitude and get people to start thinking about, ‘Well, what can I do?’ as far as entrepreneurship.”

Still, the number of Native American-owned businesses has been increasing — at least as of 2012.

They increased about 15 percent to 272,000 between 2007 and 2012, according to Census Bureau survey data. About 10 percent of those businesses had other employees.

The competition also follows an economic development symposium at UW last spring meant to help raise awareness about tribal entrepreneurship, Trosper said.

Wyoming Technology Business Center business counselor Mehdi Vali said at last week’s meeting that the Wind River competition is modeled after similar startup initiatives in Wyoming conducted through the business center that have been successful.

“We believe this is a very successful model,” he said at the meeting.

The competition will begin accepting applications Sept. 1. They are due Nov. 30. Applicants, or the principal ones, must be tribal members.

Those interested in applying should contact UW’s Wyoming Technology Business Center at wtbc@uwyo.edu or 307-766-6395 before applying.

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Follow reporter Chris Aadland on Twitter @cjaadland

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Chris Aadland covers the Wind River Reservation and tribal affairs for the Star-Tribune as a Report for America corps member. A Minnesota native, he spent the last two years reporting for the Wisconsin State Journal before moving to Wyoming in June 2019.

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