When Linda Crider began looking for a call center provider several years ago, one of the top bids came from an impoverished tribe in one of the poorest parts of America.
In a small building on South Dakota's Pine Ridge reservation, Karlene Hunter had put a couple dozen women to work doing direct mail and call center work for Fortune 1000 companies. Hunter is a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe.
Crider, director of global business for USE Inc., a U.S.-Chinese joint venture that offers back-office services, admired Hunter's efforts to create jobs for her tribe, whose unemployment rate tops 70%.
But she was more impressed by the quality of work by Lakota Express, Hunter's firm, and its willingness to work nights and weekends to complete projects in 24 hours.
"They ended up winning the bid and it wasn't because I felt sorry for them," said Crider, who eventually hired Hunter's firm to perform accuracy checks on information outsourced to USE's data processing center in Zhuhai, China. "They had what we needed."
Lakota Express is one of a handful of Native American firms that have found a niche in America's increasingly global economy.
More tribes are looking abroad for business, though many lack the commercial skills to do complex global deals, said Bob Middleton, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs director responsible for economic development. Foreign firms have shown an interest in tribes with natural resources, such as oil and gas reserves.
The Southern Utes are involved in several projects in the Gulf of Mexico.
"I would like to see the tribes be able to venture out more in this arena," he said.
Joe Anderson, a Tuscarora Indian and founder of a convenience store chain and a maker of tobacco products, made his first visit to China in the late 1990s to find suppliers for his stores and several hotels he runs in Niagara Falls, N.Y. He ended up buying equipment from a tobacco processing plant to expand a factory, which now produces about a billion cigarettes a year.
The New York state legislature this year passed a law requiring the collection of taxes on cigarettes sold on Indian reservations to non-Indians. Gov. George Pataki delayed implementing that law, saying he wanted to try to resolve the dispute through negotiations. He will be replaced in January by state Atty. Gen. Eliot Spitzer, who won the governor's seat last month.
Anderson said the legislation had led him to intensify his efforts to expand his $200-million enterprise into fields such as real estate and international trade. He is exporting his high-end "Smokin Joe's" tobacco brand to Canada, Japan and the Middle East and has trademarked it in 130 countries including China, the world's biggest consumer of tobacco.
"The way you compete against China is to find something that China doesn't do well," he said.
Hunter of Lakota Express knows there is an appetite for Native American products overseas.
Last year, she and another Native American entrepreneur, Pat Parker, attended China's giant Canton Trade Fair, where they met representatives of Chinese companies that were producing replicas of Native American artwork for export to Germany, where there is a huge market for Native American memorabilia. In most cases, the Chinese companies had copied the designs off the Internet and knew little about the traditions or history behind the work.
"It really is devaluing the artisan craft and the whole significance behind the true native American craftsmanship," she said. "But there's no way to stop things of that nature."
Hunter returned from that trip, determined to get Native Americans their own piece of the China business. She and Parker have teamed up with Simon Tam, head of USE's China operation, to seek out business opportunities for the tribes in China, including the marketing of their genuine Indian artwork and sale of bison meat and hides produced by the tribes.
"For the first time, we're on the cutting edge," she said.