Fifteen years ago, Teara Fraser decided she wanted to be a pilot. A member of the Métis Nation of Northwest Territories, Fraser was always drawn by the allure of flying, not only by the mechanics of it but by what it represented.
"Something that was seemingly impossible became possible," Fraser told Refinery29. "Flying lifted my belief in myself — my belief in what was possible."
Fraser is now the first Indigenous woman in Canada to own an airline, Iskwew Air. Her vision for Iskwew (which is the Cree word for woman) is to connect international and Indigenous communities while supporting Indigenous tourism. Iskwew's first plane was recently blessed by elders from the Musqueam nation, whose territory Iskwew's home airport is on. The airline will begin services on International Women's Day 2019.
Today, there are more minority women entrepreneurs than ever, and as of 2017, Indigenous Americans owned 1.4% of all women-owned businesses (an estimated 161,500 businesses in the U.S. alone). Still, women entrepreneurs face a startling amount of hurdles and, for Indigenous women, barriers to entrepreneurship are especially pronounced, especially for those living on reservations. In the U.S., growth rates for Indigenous-owned businesses are high, at 201% as of 2017. But, while this is certainly good news, there is still cause for concern. Issues like lack of education, lack of access to loans and capital, and lack of representation in the business world are just some of the challenges that face aspiring Indigenous entrepreneurs today. Still, the resiliency and determination of Indigenous communities is evident in their individual stories of entrepreneurship.
Amy Yeung is a Navajo entrepreneur and the founder of Orenda Tribe Studio, a small batch, up-cycled ancestral and vintage apparel company. For Yeung, this venture has provided a means of connecting with her heritage and uplifting her community. “[My Indigeneity] has been the guiding force that has led me home,” Yeung said. “It comes with a lot of the inspiration of the fabric we choose, the outlook on Instagram. My background is from New Mexico and that’s where my roots are, and everything has been leading me back in that direction.”
"My Indigeneity has been the guiding force that has led me home."
Currently based in Los Angeles, Yeung’s business journey will soon lead her back to her ancestral home of New Mexico. She will be relocating her business to the Navajo reservation next year, where she hopes to connect with other Indigenous people and tribe members, while addressing local and global issues, such as climate change, the pay gap, and unemployment in Native American communities.
“What I’m most passionate about is environmental issues — Native Americans are still facing environmental genocide,” Yeung said, noting that these are issues she plans to take a stand on, both personally and professionally, in the next year.
Fraser and Yeung's stories are especially important given the lacking conversations about Indigenous women's rights — both in society at large and in the workplace. Though support for Indigenous entrepreneurship has grown, there are still startling discrepancies in pay and opportunity for Indigenous women, both in the U.S. and all around the world.
When asked how she felt about the fact that Indigenous women in the U.S. only make 57 cents for each dollar a white man makes, Yeung said that she feels “frustrated and disgusted” but is empowered to do something about it. To start, she wants to be a representative for Indigenous success in the fashion industry. “That’s the whole point of me relocating from a comfortable life in Southern California to New Mexico,” Yeung said. “That’s the point of bringing employment opportunities to the reservation — I want to mentor [Indigenous youth] and help them see how that’s done, to be able to show them that it’s completely possible to go into this career.”
Fraser, too, has seen firsthand the many ways that Indigenous people are disenfranchised, not just in business but throughout society. "There is a huge gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, and there is an even wider gap between Indigenous women and male settlers," Fraser said.
To be sure, centuries of colonization and subjugation on this continent have greatly affected Indigenous communities, particularly women. On top of high levels of unemployment and poverty, Indigenous women are at greater risk for gender-based violence and discrimination, and all of these factors also come into play when considering professional barriers against Indigenous women. On top of this, when it comes to career aspirations, statistical evidence links minority representation in a profession to the success rate of minorities in that field. And, historically, Indigenous representation has been lacking.
"I didn’t get to imagine who I could be. I was imagining myself in the shoes of non-Indigenous people, particularly white people."
For Anna Soole, a Red River Métis* who practices as an Indigenous educator, coach, and consultant, representation (or lack thereof) played a crucial role in how she once envisioned her own future. "When I was growing up as a mixed-Indigenous person displaced from my homeland, I didn’t see myself a lot," Soole said. "I didn’t get to imagine who I could be. I was imagining myself in the shoes of non-Indigenous people, particularly white people. The path I was imagining for myself wasn’t my true path."
Soole now works as a mentor for Indigenous youth and has seen, firsthand, the ways that Indigenous mentorship and representation play a role, not just in community-building but in entrepreneurship. "Seeing Indigenous mentors who are lawyers, educators, and have their own businesses and practices... I watch [the youth] begin to imagine that for themselves," Soole said.
Today, there are still countless barriers facing Indigenous women entrepreneurs. That's why mentorship groups, like Soole's, are important: They bring together young Indigenous women and successful Indigenous professionals to show them what they are capable of. The results, Soole says, are palpable: "I see young people finishing school that might not have otherwise. They’re able to make it through because they see what’s on the other side, they see what’s possible."
For those who want to support Indigenous women entrepreneurs, Soole says there are numerous things for non-Indigenous people to do, including supporting Indigenous artists and businesses and looking at our role in the existing systems that create numerous barriers for Indigenous people. "If you need a service, find Indigenous, Black, and other marginalized services first. Seek them out and pay them fairly," Soole said. "If you buy Indigenous clothes, make sure you know who the artist is, what their nation is, what’s going on in their community."
Thanks to increased awareness, things are beginning to change. In recent years, Native American women are going to college more than ever, paving the way for future generations of Indigenous women professionals. More Indigenous women than ever have college degrees, are obtaining higher paying jobs, and are pushing back against discrimination than before. On top of that, Indigenous entrepreneurship is growing rapidly in the U.S. and Canada and becoming a powerful player in the global entrepreneurial community. In light of this progress, these women hope their stories will also help to inspire future generations of female Indigenous entrepreneurs.
"I truly believe that we can make anything possible, particularly when we embrace the way of women and Indigenous people to connect with each other [and] to come together in community."
"I have a difficult time being in the spotlight, and I do it anyways because it’s important that women and Indigenous people see themselves reflected in the world," Fraser said. "I truly believe that we can make anything possible, particularly when we embrace the way of women and Indigenous people to connect with each other [and] to come together in community."
Indeed, it's certain that contemporary Indigenous trailblazers will positively impact future generations of Indigenous women and girls and help expand their notions of what is possible. "I want young Indigenous people and women and girls to find their passion," Fraser concluded. "[To] find what they’re excited about, to dream it, to design it, to do it. And to not let anything get in their way."
*Soole identifies as a displaced visitor on unceded Coast Salish lands [xwməθkwəy̓əm, sḵwxw̱ ú7mesh, sel̓íl̓witulh, and Stó:lō Nations], more widely known as Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada.