Conor Green Tribal Economic Development is an organization designed to assist in the founding and success of Indigenous-owned businesses throughout the United States. In their own words, “[Conor Green] invest[s] our capital and internal resources in developing tribal cannabis projects… [e]nsuring our tribal business partners achieve success for their people.” Conor Green seeks to eliminate the disparity in the cannabis business space, as the Indigenous population remains prominently underrepresented despite most communities having incorporated the plant into their healing traditions for centuries. With the launching of such business, there is a hope to bring economic development to tribal lands while still retaining their independence and sovereignty.
Honeysuckle reached out to Todd Bergeron, Managing Partner at Conor Green, to discuss the firm’s work with the Shinnecock Nation, based in New York. Since 2015, Conor Green has provided legal, regulatory and economic guidance to develop the Shinnecocks’ entrance into the cannabis industry. This year, the Nation launched Little Beach Harvest, a cannabis company with a growing/processing facility, wellness lounge, and dispensary to open in the Hamptons in 2022 in partnership with TILT Holdings, an established cannabis operator.
HONEYSUCKLE MAGAZINE: Tell us how the firm got started in this wonderful work with Indigenous communities.
It was started by a couple of gentlemen I worked with. After taking over Conor Green and meeting various tribal leaders and members, I quickly realized how significant this business was in terms of economic development. I put all other projects on hold and jumped with both feet.
What other tribes is Conor Green working with? Or is it mostly the Shinnecock?
It was mainly Shinnecock to get this off the ground, but now that it’s on its way, it frees our team up to pursue other opportunities. Many tribes are looking at cannabis as a means of economic development as it’ll help them broaden their horizons and not be so dependent on businesses like casinos.
Many Indigenous communities have internal stigmas against cannabis due to the consequences of the War on Drugs. Has there been resistance in getting the tribe into the cannabis industry?
Certainly, yeah. Some of the older generations have “reefer madness” that’s been ingrained into everyone’s heads. They think this is a drug and tribes already deal with drug and alcohol problems so why bring it here and raise the crime rate, when really the opposite is true. We’ve done a lot of community outreach to spread education so the tribal community can have more informed opinions about cannabis.
For the Shinnecock, it seems that a lot of their tribal members are excited about venturing into cannabis, especially Chenae Bullock, Managing Director of Little Beach Harvest.
Chenae is! She’s going to be an amazing leader, the tribe couldn’t have picked a better person to run their cannabis business. It’s been a lot of effort to get the leaders and the members of the tribe to understand that this is good for economic development. We’ve collectively done a great deal of community outreach which has broadened the vision into, “Yes, we want this. This is good for the community and we’re going to push on through.”
What stage of development is Little Beach Harvest at now?
At the moment, it’s in the organizational stage right now. Where the facility is going to be, hiring and training staff, construction is now underway. It’s going to take a good part of next year to actually build these facilities and get them up and running.
We did an article regarding a tribal company in Canada’s Mohawk Territory and they were talking about the different tax laws regarding First Nation businesses. Were there complications regarding tax codes with legal cannabis?
The real meat and potatoes about the whole issue are how the state and tribal businesses are going to cooperate. There’s been a lot of discussions to make sure that we’re not cutting corners regarding safety and that the business will be run just like state-licensed businesses. We’re making sure that we show that we’re serious about this and we’re running the business on the same level as state-licensed operators. Our partnership with TILT really signifies that Shinnecock is serious about building both a successful and compliant business.
Conor Green worked on a big Indigenous People’s Day campaign in Times Square with Honeysuckle and the Indigenous Cannabis Coalition. What would you say is the significance of the billboard in Times Square?
We need to discuss the Indigenous people that have been here and have suffered in silence. It’s important to raise awareness, and the more we talk and share these stories, the more people will understand the tribes here that deserve a seat at the table in the cannabis industry, as well as grasping some of the trauma that they have endured.
So much of the conversation in the cannabis industry is the inclusion of Black and brown people, but Indigenous people remain sidelined in the conversation. We’re constantly forced to say that there’s a group that remains disadvantaged and needs to be included in this idea of social equity.
[Cherokee leader Wilma Mankiller once] said if you’re going to improve your society, you need wellness, proper care and education for people in order for them to get any better. I think that’s something that the cannabis community is hopefully going to help provide more of.
I agree. That’s what’s exciting about this industry. We’re going to build a hundred billion dollar industry and we have a chance to get it right, without leaving Black and brown and Indigenous folks on the sidelines. I love being in the middle of this and trying to make a difference. Boosting economic development and providing more revenue for the tribe will allow them to provide better support for the community.
Right now, it’s difficult for them to return home if they leave, because there's nothing to do, no career for them to build for themselves. As employment, education, healthcare and such become more available, they’ll be able to take these skills and create careers for themselves. Little Beach Harvest will be hiring onsite staff from the tribe. They’ll be able to come back home because there’s something to do. There’s just this domino effect of exponential benefits beyond the dollars it will produce for Shinnecock.
Will the Shinnecock bring a lot of their traditions into the business operations?
No doubt that there’s going to be a lot of influence based on the culture and history, especially with Chenae at the forefront of it. From PR to native preference in hiring, their culture will truly be weaved through it.
Her background was initially cultural preservation, right?
And activism and plant medicine, yes.
Do you think there’ll be an opportunity to have cross tribal relations within the business?
Absolutely. That’s something that Chenae is very passionate about, as well as other members of the tribe. Once federal legalization occurs, there’s no reason it shouldn’t in the cannabis industry.
What are you most looking forward to as far as potential projects for Conor Green?
Looking forward to working with different tribes and uplifting those that don’t have the same level of access to the industry. Although we’re a consulting company, we’re not here to just train for six months and then just leave. No, we’re here to invest our time, money and effort to figure this out with them. As this industry gets underway, we have to make sure that they have a seat at this table.