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  • Sovereign Entrepreneurs: Cherokee Small-Business Owners and the Making of Economic Sovereignty by Courtney Lewis
  • Samuel W. Rose
Courtney Lewis. Sovereign Entrepreneurs: Cherokee Small-Business Owners and the Making of Economic Sovereignty. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019. 312 pp. Hardcover, $90.00; Paper, $32.95.

This ethnographic monograph examines the contemporary and recent historical situation of small businesses of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) located on the Qualla Boundary in Cherokee, North Carolina. The author uses the temporal entry point of the 2008 recession. [End Page 201] In that sense, the background context of the book is the small business sector within the crisis of recession and its aftermath. The author delves into some of the economic history of the EBCI, how they have been able to sustain themselves by a conscious orientation toward tourism, and how the small business sector persists as an attempt at creating and maintaining a diversified economic base against the uncertainties of a massive tribal government-owned casino and tourism industry. The author also delves into the infrastructure that has been created to encourage and further the small business sector, as well as examining the different types of small businesses that exist, with the primary divider being whether they cater to the tourism industry or whether they cater more to the local Cherokee population. And to be clear, these are all small businesses owned by EBCI citizens. Lewis theorizes these dimensions of the EBCI small business sector in terms of “economic sovereignty” and “Indianpreneurship.” Thus, through the practice of small business creation and a thriving small business sector that is Indigenous-owned, the EBCI creates not only a diversified economic base but also the political economy for their own collective autonomy.

To the author’s credit, the book works on a number of levels as an ethnographic case study. The two main strengths and value of the book are (1) the ethnographic examination of the small business sector within an Indigenous community, and (2) the examination of some of the internal tensions and contradictions of not only creating and maintaining a business, but also the making and sustaining of livelihoods amid economic crisis. To the first point, as the author even notes, there is a dramatic scarcity of social scientific examination of contemporary Indigenous economies, especially as they relate to capitalism. This scarcity is true in general even for the dominant tribal government-owned economic models, but is even more so when it comes to alternative economic models, even with those models such as small businesses that still exist within (and do not seek to go beyond) capitalism. Again, this is even truer when it comes to qualitative or ethnographic based studies. The near complete dematerialization of the field of Indigenous studies in that manner has been a constant frustration for me. While this one book cannot possibly fill that massive gap in the academic literature, it is certainly a welcome contribution in those terms. To the second point, perhaps the greatest ethnographic strength of the book is the examination of the social and political tensions and [End Page 202] contradictions around the EBCI small business sector narrowly, but also the Indigenous small business sector more broadly. There are specifically economic tensions and contradictions of the small business sector in the shadow of the massive and seemingly monolithic casino and tourism businesses owned by the EBCI government. In those circumstances, the tensions and contradictions are around the degree of collaboration and shared prosperity between small businesses and tribal businesses as well as where these two are in fact in competition with each other, and where EBCI economic policies and development limit the growth potential for the small business sector. However, non-overtly economic laws and policies also impact and constrain the small business sector. The most intriguing example is actually how EBCI’s own citizenship laws threaten the small business sector. EBCI, like most tribal governments in the United States, follow a version of blood quantum. The interrelationship between EBCI blood quantum restrictions and exogamous marriage by small business owners actually threatens the long-term viability of individual businesses as well as the small business sector as a...


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