Roby Cottier always wanted to own a woodworking business, but kick-starting any venture on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is like walking up the down escalator.
He had no assets or collateral, so a loan was a long shot. Two months ago, he had nothing to do but spend afternoons on his couch, eating potato chips. Then something happened. He landed a job — a woodworking job — on the reservation.
Now, though he may not be the owner of his own woodworking business, Cottier, 32, is a foreman at Sioux-Preme Wood Products Co., a wood-casket assembly company that opened last month in Manderson.
The company, owned by a group of investors led by the Wounded Knee Community Development Corp., is a landmark in economic development for a reservation where unemployment is almost 80 percent.
Cottier manages 11 employees who assemble and detail solid-wood caskets for Native and non-Native customers across the Black Hills and surrounding states.
"They all have families," Cottier said of his employees. "You know how that makes me feel? It makes me feel good to know I actually accomplish something. We are making history on the reservation as a business."
Up a dirt road just minutes outside Manderson, population 626, sit three white, former school buildings. The view across the plains is spectacular, but as recently as last winter, the structures sat in ruin with damaged siding and shattered windows. They are now a symbol for economic good on the reservation.
"It means a new future. It is a new way of doing things," said General Manager Mark St. Pierre.
The journey has been arduous for St. Pierre. It took from March to September to redirect a $99,000 federal grant from a previously approved strip mall project toward the casket company. Had he not realigned the grant money, the deadline to spend it on the strip mall would have expired, St. Pierre said.
Sioux-Preme buys casket kits from a Native American-owned supplier in Colorado. The wood is sanded, assembled, finished in a spray room and lined with custom fabric at the Pine Ridge plant. The final products range from a $500 pine box with rope handles to a cedar model that sells for about $2,500.
St. Pierre aims to build and ship 80 caskets per month by September 2013. He hopes next year to buy precision cutting machines to build the caskets from wood to finished product, without the kits. The current business model eases the learning curve and allows St. Pierre to use his Colorado supplier in an advisory role.
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Launching a start-up on a reservation is a struggle. There are no banks on the reservation, and because land is often tribal-owned or in trust, outside banks are hesitant to loan to Native Americans with few assets. The high-school graduation rate for Shannon County hovers around 7 percent, making for a largely untrained workforce. Federal subsidy programs for reservation or low-income areas exist, but access can be slow, tedious and complex.
"They have put tribes in very difficult situations," St. Pierre said. "Writing successful grants for infrastructure projects requires talents and skills that don't exist in most reservation communities or don't exist in small, rural, non-Indian communities."
Walter Hillabrant co-founded Native American Capital outside Washington, D.C., 15 years ago. His company helps tribal communities and businesses structure finances and facilitate development.
"If you don't have a job, a meaningful role in your family — and clan and tribe and country — it is hard to feel good about yourself," Hillabrant said. "And it is easy to do things that are not good for your health and good for your family."
He said investors or businesses considering investing on a reservation may want a waiver of tribal sovereignty in order to have access to federal or state courts. Tribal governments may lack a general business infrastructure, such as zoning regulations, tax policies and commercial codes.
"Complicated things and uncertainty are poison to economic development," Hillabrant said.
Sioux-Preme Wood is now a proving ground on Pine Ridge. One of Cottier's relatives, Patrick Cottier, 32, is a shop worker at Sioux-Preme and said friends ask jealously, "You're working?"
"If I work here long enough, maybe my kids can work here," Patrick Cottier said. "To find something close to home, that is perfect."
Last week, St. Pierre spent hours with a government auditor affirming he is following the grant terms. He said few people believed his vision would come this far, and he remains determined to succeed.
"The young Native people of western South Dakota are the largest untapped economic possibility that South Dakota has," he said. "People need to start thinking in the long term."