As businesses shutter and unemployment surges in response to the coronavirus pandemic, businesses owned by people of color are at risk of permanent closure. BIPOC (black, Indigenous and people of color) communities historically have less access to resources and capital, often with less savings to fall back on in the event of an emergency.
On May 4, the Community Chamber Coalition of Oregon — comprised of chambers of commerce representing Oregon’s Asian Pacific Islander, Black, Filipino, Native and Hispanic-owned businesses,
asked Portland’s City Council to prioritize BIPOC-owned businesses when distributing COVID-19 relief.
The Portland and Salem metro areas rest on traditional lands of the Cowlitz bands of Chinook, Multnomah, Clackamas, Kathlamet, Molalla, Tualatin Kalapuya and many other tribes. Today, people from these bands are represented by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, and the Chinook Nation and Cowlitz Nation in Washington.
While the Secretary of State’s Office does not record what percentage of businesses are Indigenous-owned, it’s critical to support the few existing local Indigenous businesses to keep them afloat.
I spoke with five of these businesses’ owners about how COVID-19 is affecting their livelihoods and what the future looks like to them.
Troy Douglass, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, began his sports merchandise business in 2011, operating from his current location at the Lloyd Center since November 2018.
PROFILE: Grand Ronde Tribal member weaves cultures into his successful clothing line
With the physical shop closed,
Cultural Blends has lost its main source of revenue. It has shifted to online sales to survive.
“It’s put us in a pinch to be creative and drive sales,” Douglass said.
The shift to online is enough to keep them afloat for a few more months, he said.
“What’s really helping us is the grant money,” he said, “because I don’t know if we have to pay rent here or not. No one has gotten any word on that.”
Douglass was one of 200 to receive a Prosper Portland Small Business Relief grant, out of more than 11,000 applicants.
“If we do have to pay rent here with the shop being closed,” he said, “I’m going to have to move.”
As for the future, Douglass hopes to reopen, and he continues to plan the next steps for his business.
“If we can stay at this location at least until the end of the year or longer, I might open up a second shop that might be very small that revolves around ’90s basketball,” he said.
For now, the best way to support Cultural Blends is to visit the store online,
on it website or on Instagram @culturalblends and @culturalblends_store.
Kristi Carlough, Somaflow
Kristi Carlough runs a massage therapy studio in Southwest Portland that has shut down completely due to the pandemic.
“I left (one weekend for) my cousin’s wedding, and when I came back, everything was done,” said Carlough, who is Alutiiq from Seldovia, Alaska.
Carlough has had some relief. Her rent is temporarily reduced, her overhead costs are minor, and she’s received a grant from Prosper Portland.
But the pandemic has halted her plans for growth. Prior to the pandemic, business was booming at
Somaflow, and Carlough had taken coaching and business classes through Native American Youth and Family Center, or NAYA.
“I was so excited to level up, and it was absolutely heartbreaking as things started to spiral,” she said. “Resources for my businesses are on pause right now. I had this major growth plan, and now I’m so hesitant to even consider that. Just focus on the basics. Let’s make sure touch is legal again.
“I don’t have any money coming in, and I don’t qualify for unemployment, so I had to find another job for the next couple months to stay floating.”
While her business is on pause, Carlough worries about her customers.
“A lot of my clients are Indigenous people and people of color,” she said. “They were so excited to meet a massage therapist that was Indigenous because there is this wall up for people of color — especially in a business like this that is so intimate. There’s some worry that (if) the ties are severed, maybe they won’t come back.”
Carlough is still hopeful, but she’s taking it one day at a time.
“I do know that Native people, we are incredibly resilient. We are going to get through this,” she said.
Further south, in Salem, the pandemic continues to halt growth for once flourishing business owners.
“The momentum that I had been working toward over the past five years building a business, with the goal of growing, has now stopped,” said Leon Araiza, a general contractor and owner of
Advanced Tribal. Araiza is Carrizo Apache and Azteca on his mother’s side and Yaqui and Paiute on his father’s side.
“At one point here, I had about six employees,” he said. “It’s now all stopped. I’m back to where I started five years ago with just me.”
Although the pandemic has affected the scale and certainty of projects available, Araiza is confident he’ll continue to have work.
“I’m a carpenter, I do concrete, I run an excavator. I have a wide range of skills that are needed no matter what the economy is doing,” he said. “It’s just my ability to only do what I can do in a day’s time or a week’s time. I can only spread myself so thin.”
Although business has slowed, Araiza and his family feel prepared to weather the pandemic’s effects as they’ve spent the past few years working to make their home self-sufficient.
“I’ve always had this internal knowing that something’s going to happen, and we need to be able to take care of ourselves,” Araiza said.
“We’re on our way, trying to make ourselves self-sufficient,” said Araiza’s wife, Vicki, who is Northern Cheyenne and King Island Inupiut.
“Raising our children to be closer to the earth, (the pandemic) was a reminder that we really need to do this,” she said.
“A lot of our understanding for the need for preparing, and not really knowing for what, had to do with knowing your history,” Araiza said. “Not just your personal history, but generational, historical trends. Whether it’s weather or people, government, illness. This has been repeated throughout history.”
Since buying their home five years ago, the Araizas have a significant garden growing indigenous crops, countless fruits and vegetables, and they planted an orchard this year. They’re able to heat their home with a wood-burning fireplace and are reinstating the well that came with the property.
“No matter what, we’ll be OK,” he said.
Back in Portland on Northeast Alberta Street,
Clary Sage Herbarium is working to stay afloat on what was, before the pandemic struck, one of the city’s busiest shopping streets.
“Instead of living paycheck to paycheck, we’re living grant to grant,” said owner Laurie Books, tribal member of the Karuk Nation. “A loan is not going to help us, and I don’t want a loan. That’s digging us into a deeper financial crisis.”
Without grants, she might need to close the medicinal herb and natural products apocethary.
Books has been able to retain two full-time employees to update their new website and fulfill mail orders, but she is concerned about staying afloat. The pandemic, she said, “has taken a lot of the focus away from a lot of encompassing items to sell, into strictly just herbs. Herbs require a lot of time to package and bag, and they’re very low-cost items. We’ve been working probably four times harder and making that much less.”
Although Clary Sage has been in business for nine years, it has been at its prime spot on Alberta for only one year. Books was able to negotiate rent with her landlord through June and then will need to renegotiate.
When asked about the future of her business, she said: “I don’t know. It scares me. I don’t know if we’re going to have to go to an online model. People who come in here often have immune issues, or they’re sick. I have an employee here that can’t work any (in-person) shifts because they have an autoimmune disorder.”
She said she doesn’t know what the future will look like “because I want to keep my people safe, and that’s my priority.”
For now, Books continues to depend on her community support through
a joint GoFundMe campaign and online sales.
“Ceremony and magic and those things that inspire us are really important to us right now, aside from our health. Our spiritual wellness is really important,” she said.
Nisha Supahan & Toby Linwood, Tattoo 34
As businesses reduce offerings or pivot to online models, some simply aren’t able to make the shift.
“Everyone kept saying, how are you going to pivot your business? I just keep hearing ‘pivot.’ We’re a tattoo shop. There is not a lot of room to pivot,” said Nisha Supahan, Karuk, who owns Tattoo 34 with her husband, Toby Linwood, Westbank First Nation and Wampanoag and Ojibway.
When murmurs of COVID-19 came to Portland in March,
Tattoo 34 was one of the first businesses on Hawthorne to board up.
“This was a preventive measure that was easier to do now, instead of waiting to see if something came up,” Linwood said.
“We have a family,” Supahan said. “It’s hard to decide to close your business when there’s a potential threat, but we didn’t want to be part of the problem. Money isn’t as important as taking care of our community. … Then it became illegal to stay open, so that was validating.”
Supahan and Linwood were also recipients of the Prosper Portland small-business grant and have used the funds to provide stipends to their staff and to pay rent. They have received no rent easement from their landlord despite being forced to close.
“It was so heavy,” Supahan said. “We built this business, and we were doing really well. We had just hired our first front-desk person ever. We had been building and had built up something that was providing for 10 people.”
Supahan continues to apply for grants as their current relief funds will only cover them through June. Through the uncertainty, Tattoo 34 has received community support through gift cards sales and donations
directly to the artists listed on its website.
“We all supported each other and were there if we needed anything,” Linwood said. “When we do open back up, we’re going to try to continue doing all the things we were doing in the past. Taking care of and being part of the community.”
Photos by Celeste Noche
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