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Singer Willie Nelson Helps Native American Cause


Native American Indians are often associated with images from the past or with life on the often-remote reservation lands, where poverty is widespread.

But Indians, both on and off the reservations, are developing business skills and trying to boost the economic levels of their people through private enterprise.

These efforts are supported by the Houston-based Native American Chamber of Commerce, which recently raised funds at a festival and concert headlined by country music legend Willie Nelson.

The cause of Native Americans is close to the heart of Willie Nelson, who is part Cherokee and has many fans among Indians around the nation.

At the first "Hope and Harmony for Humanity Benefit" held near Houston, members of various tribes came together in celebration.

Some also came to sell crafts.

Many Indians also came to re-establish contact with the heritage that they sometimes leave behind as they assimilate into the mainstream.

Vendor Roger Sanchez, who lives in a small town north of Houston, says he was an adult before he looked into his ancestry and discovered that his grandparents were from an Indian tribe. He says that discovery changed his life. "I know who I am now, I know where I belong. I know my path now. Before I was lost, I didn't feel I belonged anywhere."

The head of the Native American Chamber of Commerce, Carroll Cocchia, says she and many other people of mixed blood sometimes have to overcome the stereotypes others have of what an Indian should look like.

"Many times they are surprised when they see someone like me saying, 'I am Blackfoot, but I had a Polish father.' So I have both bloods. Native Americans, many of them, most of them, probably, have become assimilated. They could be the guy next door who has blonde hair and blue eyes, but is very much an Indian because it is in his heritage."

Cocchia says the Native American Chamber has provided a way for business owners of Native American descent to seek contract work from corporations anxious to support minority businesses.

"There is much representation of other groups, but there is not much of the Native American community, of Native American construction companies, media companies and pipeline companies. So, when there is, they like to take advantage of it, because they are trying very hard to give everyone an equal opportunity."

Many businesses are also starting up on reservations, which have been made less remote by computer technology.

Ramona LaVallie, from the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota, helps run a successful enterprise there. "The building I work in right now, we have call center work, we have data entry work, we have conversion work, we do medical quotations, billing and transcription work. That has all happened in the past 20 years."

Most of the money earned from the benefit will go to improve housing on reservations and for scholarships for promising young Indian scholars. The Native American Chamber of Commerce hopes to make this an annual event.