ASU incubator boosts Native American entrepreneurs

Inno-NATIONS supports business owners and enterprises from indigenous communities across Arizona

February 28, 2017

Looking to create opportunity, the American Indian Policy Institute (AIPI) in collaboration with ASU’s Entrepreneurship + Innovation has developed an inter-tribal initiative called Inno-NATIONS, which champions indigenous entrepreneurship and economic development across Arizona.

“The goal is to support up-and-coming Native American entrepreneurs and ignite enterprises to fuel sustainable tribal economies by rejuvenating and modernizing traditional trade networks,” said Traci Morris, AIPI director and Inno-NATIONS founder. scarf print Detail of a scarf print from the Beyond Buckskin Boutique. Photo courtesy of Download Full Image

Morris said by spearheading innovative partnerships and leveraging resources from ASU, tribes and community organizations, she hopes that Inno-NATIONS will create a “collision community,” causing a ripple effect of economic change in tribal communities.

The first collision takes place with the inaugural learning lab series, “Beyond Buckskin: Beyond Online” on March 1 followed by “Protection in All Directions: A Fashion & Resistance Awareness Event” on March 4. The latter will include discussions, multi-media discussions and a fashion show highlighting local Native American designers including Jared Yazzie of OxDX.

Both events are free and take place at The Department in downtown Phoenix.

Inno-NATIONS will also launch a three-day pilot cohort with approximately 20 Native American businesses starting in June.

“Beyond Buckskin” features Jessica Metcalfe, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa, Dartmouth graduate and entrepreneur, who grew a small online store into a successful boutique on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota.

The store promotes and sells Native American-made couture, streetwear, jewelry, and accessories from more than 40 Native American and First Nations artist, employing tribe members from the Turtle Mountain community.

ASU Now spoke to Metcalfe to discuss her work.

Head shot of

Jessica Metcalfe

Question: We’ve seen Native American fashion emerge and evolve. How did you get into the business?

Answer: I was writing my master’s thesis in 2005 and my advisor at the time had told me about some research she had done, which looked at Native American fashion in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. She had wondered if I was interested in picking up where her research left off. I looked into it and found that there were these breadcrumbs, little bits here in there, that something had been going on in the past 60-70 years, but hadn’t been looked at as a collective movement.

Through my doctoral dissertation, what I discovered was that Native American fashion has gone through waves of acknowledgements by the broader public, but what we’re experiencing now is perhaps the biggest wave yet.

You have designers like Patricia Michaels out at New York’s Style Fashion Week and the Native Fashion Now traveling exhibit touring the country, so there’s really a lot of exciting things happening lately. It’s coming from a collective movement. Designers basically grouping together to share costs but also to put together more events to cause a bigger ruckus.

Q: How did you build your online store into a brick-and-mortar business?

A: I first launched a blog in 2009 as an outlet for my dissertation research, and wanted to share it with more people and to also get more stories and experiences. My readers kept asking where could they see and buy these clothes? At that time, there wasn’t an easy way to access functions like a Native American Pow Wow or market in order to do that.

I had established a rapport with designers through my research and writing. They saw what I was doing through the blog and then a question popped into my head. “How would you feel about creating a business together?” There were 11 initial designers who said they needed the space, and I worked with them to sell their goods online. We just now opened our design lab on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation. We are creating a system where we can meet demand and maximize a need in Indian Country.

We employ Native Americans from ages 15 to 22. There aren’t a whole lot of opportunities for people that age on the reservation. They either work at the grocery store or the gas station. One of them is interested in film and photography and so they run our photo shoots. Another person is interested in business entrepreneurship, and they get to see how an idea goes from concept to execution.

Q: The subtext is that this isn’t just about fashion but, history, representation and cultural appropriation?

A: Our clothing is just more than just objects. It’s about how the material was gathered, what the colors represent, what stories are being told and how does that tie into our value system. One of the things I often discuss is the Native American headdress. Our leaders wear them as a symbol of their leadership and the dedication to their communities. These stories are a way to share our culture with non-Natives and protect our legacy for future generations.

Q: Why is it important for Native American businesses to branch out into other cultures?

A: Native American people desperately need to diversify their economic opportunities on and off the reservations. Up until recently, people haven’t thought of fashion or art as a viable career path.

A recent study conducted by First Peoples Fund that found a third of all Native American people are practicing or are potential artists. That is a huge resource we already have in Indian Country and we need to tap it and develop it, and push for Natives in various fields to look at themselves as entrepreneurs and launching businesses.

Now, Native American people have an opportunity to make a positive impact in their local communities by reaching people through their art and sharing our culture with the rest of the world.

Reporter , ASU News


image title

ASU professor challenges conventional wisdom in invasion biology

ASU professor Matt Chew savors role as 'most hated man' in invasion biology.
ASU professor says everything in nature has been shaped by human activity.
February 28, 2017

Counterintuitive School of Life Sciences professor Matt Chew calls for emphasis on effect, function of tamarisk shrub

The license plate on Matt Chew’s Toyota Tacoma reads “Tamarix.”

It’s the scientific name for tamarisk, also called the saltcedar, a shrub introduced to the U.S. in the 1800s. Today, it’s choking off waterways throughout the Southwest.

People call the plant by many names. Few are fit for print. And the same can be said for Chew, an assistant research professor in the School of Life SciencesThe School of Life Sciences is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. at Arizona State University and the most hated man in invasion biology. It’s an appellation he savors.

Of all the names he’s been called, his favorite is “the invasive species gadfly.” His counterintuitive approach puts him at odds with those who would rank him somewhere between river scum and climate change deniers.

“I don't love tamarisk, either,” Chew said. “I just don't hate it. But I do find tamarisk — and people's feelings about it — very interesting.”

To most, the pink-flowered scrub brush embodies the worst problems associated with invasive species. Chew, however, is calling for more emphasis on understanding the effects and functions of the plant, and less emphasis on where it came from and when. Invasive species can create benefit as well as harm, Chew argues. A paper defending his views is due to be published soon in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

Water managers, farmers and ranchers say tamarisk bushes suck up too water. Botanists say it kills every native plant around it. Environmentalists say it turns desert riparian areas into dry, salty basins. For rafters and kayakers, it turns riverbank campsites into impenetrable thickets and creates deadly hazards. People floating the Rio Grande have been sucked beneath matted tamarisk roots and pinned by the current.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies tamarisk as an invasive plant. There are groups dedicated to removing it, a near-impossible task. Burning tamarisk makes it grow back faster. Cut it down, and it just grows back. Herbicides don’t work.

When national parks and other federal agencies responsible for public lands talk about restoring natural habitat, “what they’re talking about is a perpetual gardening project,” Chew said.

“They want it to look like it was before man came,” he said. “In some ways it’s misanthropic.”

Chew tries not to use the word “native” anymore.

“It doesn’t mean very much,” he said. “Everything has been brought in from somewhere else. Invasive biologists systematically exclude imported species from their classifications.”

One of Chew’s points is this: Which point in the past do you choose as the ideal Eden? Before Europeans came to the New World? Mesoamericans traded (non-native) red macaws with the Anasazi in present-day New Mexico. Tamarisk was introduced to New England sometime before 1818. So, is it the ideal native state of nature before 1818? Or before the tamarisk was widely planted out West in the 20th century? Or do you go back to North America before people, when wooly mammoths and giant sloths roamed the plains?

“Invasion” has also gone from the New World to the Old, as well. Raccoons in Europe aren’t native, nor are grey squirrels in the United Kingdom.

"Every organism now living occupies an environment shaped to some degree by human activity."

– Matt Chew, assistant research professor, School of Life Sciences 

“Invasion is a difficult metaphor, but it’s a compelling one,” Chew said. “You’ve got to take them on a case-by-case basis.”

When ecology emerged, society distinguished humans from nature. By the time ecology became a science, human affairs were regarded as an imposition on nature. Ecologists sought to study wild sites. By the time it was understood that the players and the stage were inseparably intertwined, few were (and are) unwilling to abandon the idea of “real” ecology where man’s hand is unseen.

In the case of tamarisk, it’s been vilified beyond rational thinking. In one of his papers, Chew notes that post-World War Two, the plant was described in similar terms to the Japanese a few years earlier. One suggestion at the time was to burn the plant out with flame throwers, a callback to the Pacific campaign.

“The history to date has been fostering fear and loathing whenever possible,” Chew said.

The problem is governmental, industry, and conservation groups use the widely available body of misinformation regarding tamarisk in preparing legislation, executive orders, management policies and plans, and promotional and educational materials, Chew said. Scientists, too, redisseminate outdated, inaccurate information in journal articles, further disconnecting science and management, he said.

But some scientists are becoming convinced that tamarisk is, as Chew says, “as much a ‘passenger’ of change as a ‘driver’ and has positive ecological values of its own.”

Trend lines are shifting from a “pest plant” eradication stance to systemic, process-based restoration.

Increasingly, scientists are recognizing that ecosystems are reorganizing around tamarisk, providing food and cover to species.

Chew teaches a field class called Novel Ecosystems. It is intended to challenge preconceptions and received wisdom about the environment. The class goes to places you’ll never find on a postcard: to effluent-dominated wetlands, farm fields, newer and older commercial and residential areas, fake lakes and vacant lots.

“Among all this contention, one fact remains: Every organism now living occupies an environment shaped to some degree by human activity,” the class syllabus reads. “The conceptual separation between history and natural history is undeniably fictional. We would be hard pressed to demonstrate that individuals of any other species know or care. Real organisms must live and real ecological relationships must occur in the real world, and we will look for them there.”

On a recent balmy day, the class meets at the Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area in Phoenix. Planes roar overhead. Rabbits hop along dirt paths. Salt River Project is doing a release from the Verde River, so the normally modest channel is bank-to-bank.

“This is very artificial,” Chew told his students. “At one point they basically killed everything down here to rechannel it.”

Underneath the Seventh Street bridge, Chew points out a white lead tree, a Central American tree spread around the world for cattle fodder. They’re found in vacant lots all over Phoenix. There is also an Australian acacia, papyrus (from North Africa and the Middle East, used as paper by the ancient Egyptians), and a eucalyptus tree (also from Australia).

“It’s getting kind of cosmopolitan down here,” Chew said.

Top photo: Assistant research professor Matt Chew checks the early buds on a willow branch at the Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Project under Seventh Street in Phoenix. Chew guides his dozen BIO494 students through the Rio Salado area helping them identify native and invasive flora, mammals and birds in the area. After rainstorms, biological debris, including seeds, come through the flood control zone from residential and commercial landscapes. The seeds — papyrus, willow, acacia, fan palms, etc. — then take root in the damp soil of the riverbed. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News