Gary “Litefoot” Davis walks confidently as he leads a tour of the Mesa, Arizona offices of the National Center For American Indian Enterprise Development (NCAIED). He points out meeting facilities that have been renovated since he took the helm in June. Inspired partly by Apple’s headquarters, the space features infrastructure for teleconferencing and webinars. A new guest conference room is attached to a full kitchen and is lined, wall-to-wall, with dry-erase boards.
At 43 years running, the NCAIED is likely the oldest nonprofit in Indian country, and Davis has worked hard to make sure “oldest” doesn’t mean “dated.” “We’re able to engage people at the speed of business now,” he says. “As the economic development entity for Indian country, I think we have to set the standards, set the bar and be engaged in best practices."
Davis, 44, is clean-cut, relaxed and professional in his relatively new role as president and chief executive officer of NCAIED (he took over in June). But change the channel, and he’s Litefoot—the longtime rapper whose lyrics are just as likely to talk about war paint as “swagger.” It may seem like a jarring disconnect, but for Davis, both roles stem from the same place. “One of the things that has awakened me every morning for the past 27 years is that in order for me to better the life that my grandfather had, in order for me to try to rectify the experience that my grandmother on my mother’s side had, I have the responsibility to go out every single day and do my best to become a catalyst in any way I can to advance our people,” he says.
A Much Larger Problem
On his father’s side, Davis is the grandson of a Claremore, Oklahoma Cherokee named Roy Leo Davis, who moved to California in the early 1940s when jobs were scarce. His mother is from the Chichimeca Tribe in Mexico. When Davis was 4, his family moved from California back to Oklahoma, and that’s where his earliest memories were forged. Though they lived in Tulsa, he remembers frequent visits to the former Dawes Act lands where his extended family had settled.
His family struggled in Tulsa, Oklahoma. For a time, his mother cleaned houses to make things work after all his father’s businesses failed. Around the age of 16, Davis dropped out of school so he could take up a job, support his family and help care for his sister.
He says he grew up thinking his family’s challenges were unique. But once he got a bit older and started making trips to other reservations, “I began to see this was a much, much larger problem. We’re all facing this at a high level—every obstacle, every negative that people were dealing with, whether it’s drugs, high school dropout rates. As a young man I was receiving this information with a lot of passion that I hold not just for my Cherokee people but for my people in general. It was almost frustrating to a maddening level.”
And from that passion, some of Davis’s earliest lyrics were born. “The only thing I knew how to do was to write these words to a beat,” he says. “I think I was really angry.”
On the face of it, Davis had already learned to channel his youthful outrage into song. But there were more life lessons to come.
Stumbling Block, or Was It a Stepping Stone?
By the early 1990s, Davis’s musical career was rolling. He had been making music and touring, a routine that kept him on the road for long stretches of time, traveling for shows across the state. At one point in 1991, he returned home from a show at the University of Oklahoma to discover that his first wife had left him. “As my journey was starting in music, she took off,” he recalls. “It was really a very pivotal moment.”
He went through a phase of questioning his purpose. The music had cost him a relationship; he briefly doubted it was his calling. But soon enough, he remembered lessons his parents had taught him. “My mom taught me to never give up. My dad was very resilient. I found myself again in a position where I had a decision to make: was I going to move forward?”
At the time, he was working in merchandising for his brother-in-law, a distributor. So by day he was driving a route, setting up product displays. In his off-hours, he was participating in talent shows. “More and more, I was being asked not just to rap and perform, but to speak. I just absolutely didn’t see myself as anybody who did that.”
One night, after praying fervently to be shown his path, Davis says he had a vivid and powerful dream. He got a bird’s-eye view of himself as a grown man, sitting in a field, and he watched himself walk over a rise to greet him, holdings hands with two Indian children. Behind his walking self, legions of Native people were also approaching, cresting the rise. “I just was shown, This is part of your life. I started crying. I remember at five in the morning, saying. ‘I promise that I’ll run and not walk, and I promise that I’ll always give 120 percent. Just please always get my back,’ ” he says. “Within a month, I no longer punched a clock, and I was traveling all over the United States. I haven’t punched a clock since.”
A Business Is Born
Around the same time, Davis got the chance to sign with a major record label in 1992. But there would be a limit on his expression: he couldn’t be out front with his identity as an Indian. “I was told, ‘Your people don’t buy records. Your people buy alcohol,’ ” he says. Davis didn’t think for a minute that he would sell out, but he went a bit further than standing his ground.
“I said our people are where we are today because too many of our people have signed deals like that. I went back home, and I started Red Vinyl Records. In that moment I decided I was going to take hold of my future. That right there is the direct purpose of this office,” he says, referring to the National Center. “I believe we as Native people should always determine what’s possible for us.”
Suddenly the owner of a record label—his first business—Davis worked hard. The next few years were periodically consumed by extended concert tours across Indian country that Davis admits became exhausting. The video for “Know Me,” a song on his Relentless Pursuit album, offers some insight. Davis has also chronicled the early years of his career into a book, The Medicine of Prayer. Published in hard copy in 2010, it’s due to be released as an e-book by Christmas.
He has reached points in his career, often during tours, where he has been tempted to cry uncle, he says—and each time, relief has come his way. He remembers one instance from 1994: “At San Carlos Apache, I was so exhausted…I laid down on a speaker and prayed, ‘Please, let me continue to do something for the people, but allow me to rest.’ ” Within days, he got a casting call that led to his featured role in the movie The Indian in the Cupboard. Compared to being on the road, the seven months in L.A. for that shoot was a rest, he says—but as soon as it was over, he got on a plane to Wyoming to kick off another tour.
In 1997, one of Davis’s performances was scheduled at the annual conference of the National Indian Education Association. There, a huge part of his destiny fell into place. At that time, the future Carmen Davis was a young, unwed woman assisting her uncle, now-Montana state senator Jonathan Windy Boy, with his own talk at the conference. “We actually crossed paths as we were getting ready to go to the workshop,” she recalls. “I knew who he was, and my sister was like, ‘He was looking at you!’ I was like, ‘Whatever.’ ”
Davis wasn’t just looking. He stopped in his tracks, and his best friend ran right into him. “I just saw my wife,” Davis said.
The pair went through a “fast courtship,” she recalls, and they were married less than a year later. They have two sons, Quannah, 13 and Sequoyah, 23 months, and they celebrated their 14th wedding anniversary in July.
When they first got together, Carmen (Chippewa-Cree, Yakama, Makah) was considering pursuing law school as a way to learn to help Native people. But in her partner, she saw a reason to skip law school, and get right to work.
They embarked on a 54,000-mile Reach the Rez tour in 2005 and 2006, whereby, with financial support from several tribal nations, they brought a message of empowerment to Native youths across the country.
The two main messages he tried to drive home—at sometimes two or three school-based talks a day—were that young people can draw power from being Native, and from prayer. He’s never forgotten his covenant with his Creator, he often says, and it’s provided him with a constant source of inspiration and strength. Davis recalls the tour as another exhausting period of time that tested his and his wife’s collective mettle. Carmen points out that they sacrificed to make it happen, even home-schooling their oldest son for a year so they could bring him along.
Even in nontouring times, Davis says he’s stunned at his wife’s ability to balance motherhood and marriage alongside her ever-growing role as president of the couple’s enterprises. They’ve built two clothing lines and a sneaker brand, and they’re involved with several casino gaming enterprises, land development, green energy and pharmaceutical initiatives. And with 11 albums in the catalog, Red Vinyl Records is still going strong. They handle booking through their newest venture, Litefoot Entertainment Group, for other Native public figures—including George “Comanche Boy” Tahdooahnippah, the boxer, and Levi Horn, Northern Cheyenne, who was signed (then cut) by the Minnesota Vikings.
Because all of their businesses are based in Seattle, Carmen is staying there through the school year while he’s primarily in Phoenix for his role with the NCAIED. Carmen acknowledges the separation was an adjustment at first—but she sees it as another welcome challenge in a series of decisions they’ve made to stay true to their purpose. “I think that’s kind of what makes us work,” she says, “understanding the bigger picture and the bigger vision, knowing that there’s definitely always work to be done.”
A Most Eclectic Résumé
Karlene Hunter, Oglala Lakota, is co-founder and CEO of Native American Natural Foods, which produces the nationally acclaimed Tanka Bars on the Pine Ridge Reservation. She’s also an NCAIED board member, and can attest to the success of its signature annual event, the Reservation Economic Summit in Las Vegas, now in its 27th year. After all, she grew her business partly with the help of the networking opportunities she found there. She says Davis is the ideal person to lead the organization now—and she doesn’t have much patience with people who raise their eyebrows at his selection. “I get so tired of people saying. ‘The rapper?’ If you knew this man! This man has run three very successful businesses. He has ventured out into many small-business arenas. He’s very intelligent and savvy on the business front. It’s just what we needed.”
She says his unorthodox career path has provided him a rare combination of qualities required for his current job: He’s well-known, articulate and approachable. “He can present well on both sides. He knows the Native business arena, and he knows what it’s like to be on the ground as a small business. He’s got the insight to know how we can expand this organization.”
Davis began attending the annual conference about a decade ago to help grow his own businesses, and for the three years leading up to his current role, he hosted and emceed the event as a contractor. For one year, he served on the NCAIED board. He said seeing the NCAIED’s operations from several very different angles gave him an in-depth understanding—and plenty of ideas for pushing the organization to new heights.
He says the annual summit is a great start, but there’s much more opportunity in Indian country than can be shared in four days per year. To foster more collaboration among Native businesses—and less bleeding of resources to non-Native partners—he believes there should be more such meetings, still national in scope but sited regionally. The first regional meeting that has been organized in line with this vision took place in mid-November at the Tulsa Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. “Sometimes we get blinded by the opportunities in our own state, or our own region,” Davis says. “Sometimes we forget that there’s money to be made all over the country. Our tribes are looking for other tribes to do business with, and yet we’re kind of missing each other in the night.”
And in addition to strengthening ties within the country, Davis sees no reason why Indian country can’t be more involved in international trade, and he intends to support tribes wishing to think big. That’s why one of the first new initiatives he unveiled as CEO—at a September 27 ceremony at the White House—was NCAIED’s new Native American Global Trade Center.
Davis understands there’s some resistance to entrepreneurship among Native people, and part of his goal is to help Indian country free itself from that. “Our Cherokee people have a long and incredible history in business, and so do my mother’s people,” he observes, noting that his mother’s tribe was ancestral to the Aztec people. “And I understand that I come from a lineage of people who were very, very capable with regards to infrastructure, with regards to business, and entrepreneurship. It is in me as it is in every Native person to be in business. Really, we have to help ourselves become more self-sufficient.”