A review of the 2019 book by Courtney Lewis, published by the University of North Carolina Press.
Courtney Lewis’s first book, Sovereign Entrepreneurs: Cherokee Small Business Owners and the Making of Economic Sovereignty, is based on fourteen months of ethnographic research among Cherokee small business owners in Qualla Boundary, North Carolina. A central premise of the book is to make sense of the understudied economies of Indigenous territories, giving prominence to the crucial role that small businesses play on reservations. Additionally, the book highlights how small business owners from the Cherokee Eastern Band contribute to the group’s economic sovereignty, which empowers this nation both culturally and politically. A case study of the challenges that so-called “Indianpreneurs” and “Entreprenatives” encounter in their pursuit of economic stability allows the author to open out on larger theoretical questions around neoliberalism, identity, autonomy, and land status.
During her fieldwork, which was conducted in the years after the 2008 financial crisis, Lewis chronicled the shifting challenges that her interlocutors were facing and the innovative solutions that they formulated to cope with adverse conditions. In the book, Lewis analyzes the social and economic boundaries within which American Indian entrepreneurs must operate and the effects of these on their small businesses. Lewis focuses particular attention on expressions of self-determination among the Eastern Band Cherokees, which she argues are exercised via the group’s small business sector and its tourism industry and gaming enterprises. She approaches economic sovereignty as “a specific form of economic self-determination that focuses on [local]-level autonomy in crafting and implementing economic systems and directions” (p. 13). The goals of these efforts, in Lewis’s analysis, are threefold: the establishment and support of a sustainable economy, the protection of the group’s economic bases, and the mitigation of the centuries-old impact of Euro-American settler colonialism.
Lewis’s ethnography goes on to explore the variety of small businesses in Qualla Boundary and their impact on local governance and the economy. In the first chapter, Lewis introduces the entrepreneurs of Qualla Boundary and the various markets they serve. As she shows, entrepreneurship in the area is family-oriented, with businesses passing from one generation to another. For these Cherokees, business ownership does not follow the patrimonial line, as in other kinds of succession among band members; rather, the emphasis is on keeping businesses within the family regardless of their future owners’ gender. The second chapter details the tourism economy and the changes affecting this important local industry over time. This chapter also discusses how small business owners interact with tourists and the tensions that arose after a casino opened on band territory.
In Chapter Three, Lewis describes the business history of the band and the two principal structural limitations that its small businesses face: geography and citizenship. She examines the political intricacies of in-group citizenship determinations, including the citizenship offers that were extended to individuals with more distal relations to the core of the band in the years leading up to her fieldwork. In the fourth chapter, Lewis details the significant role that sovereignty plays for the Eastern Band Cherokees. She highlights the stable economies that Indigenous peoples need in order to maintain their political independence from outside entities, such as state and federal governments. In Chapter Five, further developing this linkage between small businesses and economic sovereignty, Lewis interrogates the ways in which Eastern Band Cherokees and other Indigenous nations promote and support their small businesses with an eye to meeting future challenges. Here, Lewis explains the crucial role that training often plays before Indigenous entrepreneurs start businesses. She notes three avenues through which this training is delivered: in school and internship settings, via entrepreneurship magazines and books, and within the family. Formal business education can be expensive, but the band does provide financial support for citizens who seek it. However, as Lewis notes, gaining work experience and knowhow is easier for those with family members who already own businesses.
In documenting such initiatives, Lewis emphasizes how the band’s leaders and citizens seek to maintain its sovereignty via partnerships, such as the New Mexico–based American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association. The author ends the section on a positive note about the future of Indigenous small businesses, whose scope and resilience she sees as conducive to long-term sustainability for the residents of Qualla Boundary. To this end, some ideas that Lewis brings forward include the creation of Indigenous-owned and -themed chain stores, an extension of the tourism season, and additional incentives for young people to become entrepreneurs.
In conclusion, Lewis’s book is well-written and provides ample ethnographic evidence for how small businesses in Qualla Boundary contribute to the economic sovereignty and stability of the Eastern Band Cherokees. Moreover, her research contributes to current anthropological and interdisciplinary debates in development studies, examining the existential importance of small businesses in Indigenous communities. The book also includes many constructive ideas on how to strengthen and support Indigenous peoples’ centuries-long quest for economic sovereignty. Finally, it fills two significant gaps in the literature: studies of Indigenous Americans as entrepreneurs, and empirical evidence of the contributions of small businesses to reservation economies in times of crisis.
Georgia Rina is a PhD candidate in social anthropology in the Department of Balkan, Slavic and Oriental Studies at the University of Macedonia, Thessaloniki. She holds a Master’s degree in anthropological and historical approaches to women and gender from the University of Aegean and a bachelor’s degree in social anthropology from Panteion University. Her doctoral research focuses on flexible work and female entrepreneurship in Greece during the period of economic crisis. She is managing editor of e-BCN, the newsletter of the Border Crossings Network. Her research interests include business anthropology, gender, anthropology of labor, economic anthropology, anthropology of art, identities, and immigration.