Walking through the teal door of Gathering Tribes in Albany takes you around the world. On the right, glass cases are filled with necklaces and bracelets from native tribes in North and South America. On the left, books on the Mayans and Aztecs are stacked and proudly displayed underneath colorful alebrijes, Mexican folk sculptures typically depicting fantastical creatures.
Pennie Opal Plant has owned and operated this storefront on Solano Avenue in Albany since 1991. She credits her success to her long lineage of Native American business owners. “I’m the fifth generation to own a small business,” she said.
She owned her first business in her 20s, a lapidary store in Oakland. Since then, she’s moved around the Bay Area, and up and down Solano Avenue, managing various businesses. Now, Gathering Tribes is her only shop, a space that functions both as a store and as a community space where she holds talks and events with other Native American artists and writers.
According to data on business ownership rates in the Bay Area, Native Americans have the highest rates of entrepreneurship compared with all other racial and ethnic groups. Data from the Bay Area Equity Atlas shows that for every 100 Native American workers (defined as people age 16 or older in the labor force) in the five-county Bay Area (Marin, Contra Costa, San Francisco, San Mateo and Alameda counties), 39 owned a business in 2012, the highest rate out of any other group.
The highest rates of ownership of Native American businesses was in San Francisco, with 52 business owners per 100 workers, followed by San Mateo County, with 42 business owners per 100 workers.
However, the high rate of ownership does not paint a full picture. Native American owned businesses in the five-county Bay Area earned less per year than any other group. On average, Native American owned businesses had revenues of $80,000 in 2012 compared with $628,000 for white owned businesses and $247,000 for all businesses owned by people of color.
According to the Equity Atlas report, the reasons for these disparities are the same that have historically afflicted communities of color: they’re less likely to have access to capital to start a business, less likely to get approved for a loan, and they have fewer networking opportunities than other groups. “Leveling the playing field and ensuring underrepresented entrepreneurs can access growth capital, information, and networks is critical for building an equitable economy,” according to the report.
Organizations like the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development (NCAIED) work to level that field. They offer training workshops and advice on how to start a small business. They also host a conference every year in Las Vegas for tribal leaders, business owners and industry experts to build community and support for other native businesses.
“Native Americans and Alaska Natives are, by nature, very entrepreneurial. This goes back to the days when tribes sustained themselves in large part from inter-tribal trade,” said Lewis Lowe, who works for the center.
Lowe says Native American business owners face the same challenges as anyone else trying to start a small business. But access to capital is especially tough for tribal entities living in Indian Country who are more isolated. They might not live near a large city or population center and often have less access to the funding needed to start or grow a business.
E-commerce has given Lowe a lot of hope that these businesses can grow. But, he said, they’re just starting to tap into this business model. “Online business has real promise to grow native businesses beyond the border of the reservation and the border of the country,” Lowe said.
Working Solutions, a Bay Area nonprofit microlender, has been active in getting Native American businesses off the ground. The group’s mission is to give loans to small businesses. “We prioritize serving populations with limited access to capital, specifically low-income individuals, women, and communities of color,” said CEO Sara Razavi.
In 2017, Razavi noticed an uptick in the number of Native American businesses that were applying for microloans and grants. To date, they have made $300,000 in loans to native-owned businesses. Those businesses include construction companies, tattoo artists, fitness programs, a skateboard shop, and a recreational center.
Despite high ownership levels, Plant said the community of Native American business owners feels small and fractured. She can name a few storefronts in the area and vendors that come to powwows throughout the year, but for the most part, she said, there’s not too many strong businesses or networks.
That feeling is echoed by Debbie Santiago, owner of The Hair Place & More in the Mission District in San Francisco, who was surprised to hear of so many native businesses in the area. Though she knows of a few nonprofits helmed by Native American leaders, like the Native American Health Center in Oakland and the Friendship House, a rehabilitation center, she only personally knows of a handful of other storefronts in the area.
“I know the support of the community that comes into my store and of my clients,” she said. “But we don’t have that support system among business owners.”
Santiago has been in the Mission for 39 years. She says part of her success is due to the strength of her connection to her Native American heritage. Every hair product in her salon comes from recipes and tips passed down from her grandmother. They’re all natural, made with “things from the earth,” she said. She also uses her space to showcase art by other Native American artists in the area.
“I wanted to give the shop my own twist as a Native person,” she said.
Joey Montoya, owner and creator of Urban Native Era, an apparel company based in San Francisco, feels similarly to Santiago in that the community of business owners needs to be more visible. He started his company while he was at San Jose State University.
Last year, Montoya, along with the Native American Health Center, organized the Indigenous Red Market, an outdoor market where indigenous business owners can sell their work and, more importantly, build a stronger community among themselves.
“Being supportive in our community is not a new thing. I think it’s just who we are as people,” Montoya said. “We are strong people, we are everywhere, and still here.”
The market happens every first Sunday of the month in the Fruitvale District in Oakland. On Sept. 1, they were celebrating their one-year anniversary. In that year, they’ve grown from having 10 vendors to 24, ranging from art and jewelry to food and drinks. The market is also an opportunity for performers and activists to gain a platform for their work.
This month’s market featured a speech from an activist about the fires in the Amazon forest and how attendees can be part of the movement to support indigenous communities in Brazil. Another performer was Rudy Kalma, a Filipino American rapper and musician. He said places like the Indigenous Red Market are pivotal to small business owners and artists who are trying to grow and connect with each other.
“As an independent artist, you need community more than anything,” Kalma said. “You need that genuine connection.”