Native Sun News: Northern Cheyenne Tribe starts business arm

The following story was written and reported by Clara Caufield, Native Sun News Correspondent. All content © Native Sun News.

From left to right: Bo Vocu, NCDC CEO, Tracy Robinson and Willie Rowland, Tribal Council Members. Photo courtesy A Cheyenne Voice

Tribe steps away from trying to run own businesses
By Clara Caufield
Native Sun News Correspondent

LAME DEER, Mont. –– How can a dent be put into the 72% unemployment rate on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation?

One solution is business development, particularly tribal enterprise. Not a new concept because the Northern Cheyenne Tribe has established, owned and operated several businesses over the years gaining a perfect track record: nearly all tribally owned and operated business have failed. The only exception is the Cheyenne Depot 1 a gas station/convenience store, the only such outlet on the Reservation, but that too has teetered near financial ruin.

Recently, the Tribal Council decided to turn management of three tribal businesses over to a separate entity, the Northern Cheyenne Development Corporation (NCDC).

“We, as tribal politicians have no business being in business. It hasn’t worked in the past and wouldn’t ever work. We are under too much pressure to provide services and assistance and to get jobs for people.” said Tracy Robinson, Ashland District Council member. “Successful Tribes such as Southern Ute and HoChunk have separated business management from tribal politics and that is what we are now trying to do through NCDC,” he explained.

On the other hand, the Tribal Council EDC has retained control of tribal business related to trust assets including land, minerals, forestry, grazing and water. Robinson says it is necessary for the Tribal Council to manage trust assets. NCDC will now control only the tribal retail business including Cheyenne Depot 1, gas station/convenience store in Lame Deer; Cheyenne Depot 11, a closed-up gas station/convenience store in Ashland and a defunct Lame Deer Lube Center. If the Northern Cheyenne Housing Authority obtains funds to match a USDA grant, a long-discussed mini-mall will be built in Lame Deer, also to be under NCDC.

NCDC Board members are nominated by the Tribal President and confirmed by the Council. Under the new model, the Tribe will receive NCDC financial and performance reports and approve the use of profits. NCDC now holds the management reins, including hiring and firing, previously a thorny issue for managers. Current Board members include: Shelly Vocu, Northern Cheyenne, small business owner; Lucy Simpson, Navajo, an attorney married into the Tribe; Martha Bearquiver, tribal member, former partner in the local grocery store and Tommy Robinson, tribal member and contractor. Two Board positions still need to be filled.

“These people have run their own businesses and know what it takes to be successful,” Robinson noted.

The NCDC Board retains a Chief Executive Officer (CEO), currently Bo Vocu, Oglala Sioux Tribe with a business degree, 15 years of private sector experience and along with his wife Shelley, a local reservation rancher. Vocu explains that the NCDC mission is three-fold: 1) creating jobs with Cheyenne hiring preference; 2) providing needed goods and services; and 3) generating profits.

Don Lonebear, Jr. and Carrie Lou Brain are part of the Cheyenne Depot Management Team. Photo courtesy A Cheyenne Voice

As CEO, Vocu supervises tribal business managers. Currently, only the Cheyenne Depot 1 is in operation managed by Carrie Lou Braine, tribal member. A former Council member with a BS degree, she formerly managed the Tribal Employment Rights Program, making that troubled program solvent while focusing on job training and business development. As Depot manager, Braine exercises complete management control under approved policies and procedures and in conjunction with other members of the management team whom she is quick to praise.

“It takes a team of on-site players, including computer and systems experts, financial expertise and most important our core service staff,” she explained. “We have developed about 25 great employees and dug out of the financial hole we inherited.”

“We hope to use profits from these three enterprises to start additional tribal businesses” Vocu said.

However, a catch-22 still exists: the Tribal Council retains approval rights. For example, NCDC is now awaiting Tribal Council review and approval of a proposal for using 2014 Cheyenne Depot profits. That money is over and above the monthly financial dividend of several thousand dollars which the Cheyenne Depot makes to the Tribe and the Depot also foots the bill for NCDC expenses, additional thousands per month Braine noted. Tribal dividends are used at the discretion of the Council mostly by its Charity Committee.

“In the winter, we pay light bills with that money,” Robinson said.

So far, The Cheyenne Depot I has been the only tribal business to generate income for tribal coffers (excepting the tribal Charging Horse Casino, under the direction of a Tribal Gaming Commission). But, in early April, folks in the off-reservation Ashland area will once again be able to purchase gas, deli and grocery items from Cheyenne Depot 11. And in Lame Deer, it will be possible to get oil changes, new tires, tire and minor automotive repair when a defunct tribally owned Lube Center is re-opened.

These two businesses are being re-vitalized with a $130,000 shot-in-the-arm from the Montana Indian Country Economic Development (ICED) Program, funding which the Tribal Council dedicated to NCDC.

“In smaller communities like Ashland, Birney and Lame Deer, every job counts,” said MT Governor Steve Bullock. “This grant will help the Northern Cheyenne Tribe revitalize and essential community business, putting people to work and growing the economy”

Montana’s ICED program provides an annual grant of up to $70,000 to each of the eight Montana Tribal governments for economic development projects which will create jobs. An estimated 15 new tribal jobs will be created when Cheyenne Depot 11 and the Lube Center are back in business.

The Cheyenne Depot 1 and Lube Center were created with federal grant funds in the 1990’s and federal funds were also used to purchase the Cheyenne Depot 11, an existing business. The Lame Deer Depot has managed to keep the doors open while the Ashland store and the Lame Deer Lube Center went under due to frequent meddling and poor management under the Tribal Council.

“The financial problems cannot be laid entirely at the feet of previous managers,” Braine stressed. “It’s hard to say no to the Tribal Council and still keep your job. I know because I’ve done it,” she grinned.

Former managers agree that problems were primarily caused by Tribal Council raiding of the Depot accounts for things such as pow wows, rodeos, council travel, charity and even general tribal administration. And, in the past, the Tribal Council was very active in employment decisions, sometimes directing Depot managers to hire and fire employees for political purposes which now should no longer happen, both Vocu and Braine said. If the NCDC model is successful, Braine hopes to provide benefits for Depot employees.

“We have developed a very capable, professional and reliable Cheyenne workforce,” she proudly notes. “But right now, we all are only straight hourly employees. I’d like to see them get some basic benefits like life insurance, paid vacation, sick leave etc.”

Using some of its Cobell settlement funds, in 2012, the Tribe paid off approximately half million dollars of long-standing Cheyenne Depot 1 debts acquired under fifteen years of various managers and Council oversight. Still, the Cheyenne Depot owed $30,000 to vendors and significantly more for a large IRS obligation stemming from a failure to report or pay employee withholding taxes in 2009, currently under negotiation. Yet, under the guidance of the NCDC and Braine, the Cheyenne Depot has moved into the black and has promptly paid bills causing vendors to compete for their accounts.

“It’s been a tough road,” Braine said. “but once the Council got their fingers out of the cookie jar and day-to-day operations it was easier to make some progress.”

Braine will also assume management of Cheyenne Depot 11, slated for a “soft” opening in April, 2015 followed by a formal “grand” opening during Memorial Day. NCDC and Braine have high hopes for the Cheyenne Depot 11 store which sits on tribally owned lands in Ashland right off of Highway 212, heavily traveled summer tourism by-way and for semis year round. Though across from the single other gas station in Ashland owned by non-Indians, Braine believes the tribal business will be extremely competitive, Conoco branded, offering both gas and diesel from new state-of-the-art pumps and accessible by semis. First year target sales are 600,000 gallons at some of the lowest gas prices in Montana.

“We keep gas prices at the lowest possible rate, so that our tribal members can use that savings for other things. Gas is not a luxury in this rural area”, she notes. “Highway 212 has a long dry stretch of 210 miles from Belle Fourche to Hardin, MT,” she explained. “Cheyenne Depot 11 is ideally located to become a “destination fuel stop” for truckers and other 212 travelers. It will be very welcoming to Native travelers, which is not always the case in southeastern Montana.”

The Ashland store will have a full deli, a wide selection of grocery items and an outdoor summer kiosk where tribal members can sell arts and crafts.

“That will help our members with self-sufficiency, eliminating the middle man and also be a drawing card,” Braine speculated.

The biggest innovation at the Ashland Store however will be beer and wine sales, a new step for a business owned by a Tribe with a “dry” reservation which prevents the Lame Deer Cheyenne Depot from carrying these products, normally a profitable product line for convenience stores.

“The purchase and use of alcohol is legal in Ashland, off the Reservation and a personal choice," Tracy Robinson simply stated. “Selling that product is a sensible business decision made by NCDC and management.”

Braine says that beer and wine sales will be a key factor to the Depot 11’s success under a State license.

“Most small towns like Ashland and Broadus roll the sidewalks up about 8 p.m.,” she noted. “But, the Cheyenne Depot 11 hours will be from 6 a.m. – midnight, every day year around. That will also give us an edge.”

NCDC is currently advertising for a mechanic/lube technician to re-open the tribal Lube Center.

“We have some qualified applicants,” Vocu says “That will be one more job and more services for the Cheyenne people.”

(Clara Caufield can be reached at

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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