Native American Construction on the Rise
...Division stays abreast of governmental, legal and employment policies and practices. Special tasks include native-owned procurement preferences for tribal and other projects and a dedicated liaison to manage tribal employment idiosyncrasies.
“One size doesn’t fit all,” says Rex Woods, Flintco’s division senior vice president. “You cannot take one process for one tribe and use it with another tribe. You’ve got to do your research.”
Tribal sovereignty impacts bonding, taxes, codes, contracts and personnel, particularly hiring and wages. “You have to understand what those rules and regulations are going into a project,” Woods says.
Review varies greatly from tribe to tribe, sometimes due to simple available manpower. Some, such as the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation in Arizona, have sophisticated planning departments with their own inspectors. Others, such as the Colorado River Indian Tribes, use consultants. Others work with county planning departments or simply run review through the tribal council.
Hiring and wages are significant issues. Most tribes have established preference laws and Tribal Employment Rights Offices, regulating bodies created and run by each tribe to oversee compliance and enforcement, including fines. If federal funding is involved, employment law mandates Indian preference.
Federal government involvement differs. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Services or other federal agencies may assist with funding and operations, but construction is often under control of the tribe, Woods says.
“More and more, tribes are taking the lead role in not only the selection of whom they want to work with as professionals but also in managing the project itself,” he adds. “You’re looking at satisfying the expectations of the tribes more than the federal government.”
The change is impacting how projects are managed.
“The federal agencies for several decades have used the traditional bid concept, but I am seeing a gradual change in delivery systems now,” says Elsa Johnson, a consultant with Arviso/Okland Construction JV, a 51% Native American-owned construction firm with offices in each of the Four Corners states. “Slowly, owners are beginning a shift to construction manager at risk and design-build.”
The approach is often a good choice for tribal projects that demand a high degree of planning and organization, Johnson says.
Many of the projects are in rural areas, and that means issues such as utilities, access, workforce, travel and more. Weather can be volatile. In the Southwest, water can be scarce.
“This requires a lot of early planning and coordination,” Johnson says. “Many rural projects will need to be built using generator power or water that is simply trucked onto the site.”
Arviso/Okland crews have had to dig wells and set up onsite batch plants when trucking in concrete was impossible, she says.
Other practical considerations include cost management, especially for small, rural tribes, and scheduling.
“Members of a Native American school board or enterprise committee may not be full-time staff members; they...