By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015
Four Bands Community Fund’s mission is to create economic opportunity by helping people build strong and sustainable small businesses and increase their financial capability to create assets and wealth. They create opportunities for individuals, businesses, and communities that are committed to financial independence and entrepreneurship.
They use a model called Icahya Woecun (The Place to Grow) to deliver programs. Icahya Woecun combines Lakota values and tradition with the wisdom of best practices to support Native American entrepreneurs in starting or growing a business by offering four dimensions of services: education, financing, incubation, and advocacy.
They are located in north-central South Dakota on the Cheyenne River Reservation.
He learned rawhide tanning and art-making through his grandparents, but Rodrick Troy Brings Plenty (Cheyenne River) had an untested market and no collateral when he approached Four Bands for a loan to launch his art venture. Four Bands had the right product for Rodrick: an Individual Development Account (IDA). They enrolled him with support from their First Peoples Fund Indigenous Arts Ecology (IAE) grant program.
9 Native artists are in Four Band’s IDA savings program where their $500 will be matched 2:1. This helps elevate artists to the next level in their business.
Over the years, Four Bands has evaluated the local economy to understand how to overcome barriers. In surveys conducted, they found that 55% of their people participate in micro-enterprise and 78% of those individuals practice some form of art.
Their Cheyenne River Artist Market Survey in 2015 revealed a great need for these artists to improve their business financial skills. It also identified rich cultural traditions and a thriving informal arts economy amid high unemployment rates and poverty on the reservation.
“Artists are a different type of entrepreneur than most entrepreneurs we work with,” says Lakota Vogel (Cheyenne River Sioux). She is the Executive Director at Four Bands. “We have 150 active loans, and the arts is a subset of that.”
One of the ways Four Bands strives to market Native artists is through partnering with the city of Eagle Butte to host a market during the annual HomeTown Days celebration. Four Bands launched Art in the Park six years ago, allowing 90 vendors to set up under one tent for a day during the celebration.
“In our 18-year history, Four Bands has done well in creating artist markets for our community to showcase their art so they can sell their products locally,” Lakota says. “But we kept hearing that they need access to different markets. The local market is inundated with beadwork and quilting, so the price point the artists need to ask for their product is lower than what it should be. We’ve encouraged them to use Facebook, which is a common platform for most.”
Four Bands has staff certified to teach the FPF Native Artist Professional Development Training curriculum and are amazed at the positive results that come out of the two-day trainings. When artists are together in one room, it becomes an incubator for creative ideas. A community art group emerged from one of the trainings hosted by Four Bands, and they undertook creating a new art market.
Hundreds of thousands of motorcyclist bike through the area in the summertime during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, and the community art group is seizing the opportunity to attract tourist to their authentic Native art. Four Bands assisted with paperwork, paid for advertising, and provided technical assistance. With shade, tables, and business cards, the Native artists created their own art market.
“The success of that is artists coming together and wanting to do those things for themselves without many resources,” Lakota says. “Art entrepreneurs’ passion and motivation for work are different than everybody else. It helps my staff to learn and understand that perspective when they can attend events hosted by First Peoples Fund and learn how to better support the art entrepreneurs in our portfolio.”
Along with staff members, Four Bands took a local artist to the 2018 IAE convening in Phoenix, Arizona. They had identified Kelsie Kay Haskell (Cheyenne River) as an artist leader in the community and invited her to join the experience.
“She’s a strong artist within our portfolio,” Lakota says. “We wanted her to have the experience of seeing a new market, to show her what’s possible out there.”
Though passionate about beading, Kelsie never defined herself as an artist. Most of her beadwork went to family or was sold on social media.
Kelsie had rarely been out of the state and never on a plane before, but the trip was well worth it. She was excited to meet artists at the 2018 Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market, and observe their businesses. As soon as she returned from Phoenix, Kelsie began implementing changes to her approach to art and with creating new products. Four Bands is working with her on her vision to launch an art supply store on the reservation.
“Being in a rural area, beads are really expensive,” Lakota says. “Her passion is to provide art material at a lower cost for the local market.”
Four Bands recognizes that artists hold one of their greatest assets — cultural knowledge, and its importance to sustaining status as a Nation. When Four Bands started in 2000, their first loans were to artists.
“As a small community development financial institution, the heart of our work was for the art community,” Lakota says. “We heard from the art community that they needed access to small loans to support their businesses. They were the first ones in our portfolio.”