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A bill to codify the Small Business Administration’s Office of Native American Affairs (ONAA) into federal law has emerged from the U.S House Small Business Committee with unanimous, bipartisan support. 

 The bill, titled the Native American Entrepreneurial Opportunity Act, was introduced by Representatives Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, and Eli Crane (R-Ariz.) on Jan. 29. If passed into law, the bill would appoint an Assistant Administrator over the ONAA while expanding its staffing capacity and ability to make grants, establish field offices, conduct tribal consultation, and provide training and counseling. 

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 As it stands, the office is primarily leaned upon for outreach efforts utilizing a small staff, and can be unilaterally disbanded at any time. 

"Small businesses are the heartbeat of our communities and economy, and Tribal businesses are often important employers on reservations and their surrounding areas," Davids said in a statement. "We must break down barriers and increase access to resources so that every entrepreneur and business owner can grow their operation and succeed, and it all begins with having a seat at the table. I appreciate the broad bipartisan support for this bill, which aims to provide Native entrepreneurs with direct access to SBA leadership."

Crane echoed the sentiment, saying that tribal economic development provided a positive impact not only tribal communities, but the surrounding districts and states where these communities are located. 

“This bill will help draw more attention to the resources available to tribal business owners through the SBA and encourage the ONAA to continue developing new methods for outreach to ensure that tribal businesses are not overlooked—all without unnecessarily expanding government,” Crane said in a statement.

The bill’s bipartisan support drew positive comment from a wide range of business-oriented organizations in Indian Country, including the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, the Native American Contractors’ Association, and Ho-Chunk Inc., the enterprise arm of the Ho-Chunk Nation in which Davids is an enrolled member. 

“The SBA Office of Native American Affairs is a critical partner to Tribally-owned entities and ensures that decisions made within the Administration are conducted with consultation and culturally-tailored solutions,” said Annette Hamilton, vice president and chief operating officer Ho-Chunk Inc., the economic development arm of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. “Tribally-owned entities are essential economic drivers for communities that have long been disadvantaged, so having a permanent position at SBA will serve to enhance continuity in the programs that have been so effective for Winnebago tribal members.”

Chris James, CEO of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development and a former associate administrator with the SBA, said the bill would allow Natives to have an advocate within the SBA with a direct line to the administration. 

“The unique economic and entrepreneurial needs of our community – and government-to-government consultation – must always be a priority at SBA,” James said. “I look forward to working with Rep. Davids, House co-sponsors, and Senate champions to ensure this vital bipartisan legislation becomes law in 2024 so that, in years to come, Indian Country will have a seat at the head table in an agency that plays a critical role in boosting tribal economies.”

A companion bill, sponsored by Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) also passed the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship in July 2023.

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