Friday, July 11, 2008

Sister Sky: A Perfect Blend of Entrepreneurship and Native Wisdom

By AJ Naff

Published in
Indian Gaming Magazine
June 2008

Sisters Monica Simeon and Marina TurningRobe (Spokane
Tribe) strive to impart Native culture and wisdom with their
company Sister Sky, which manufactures and distributes bath
and body products created with botanicals and other natural
ingredients. “Our vision for the company and for the product
line is to create natural products inspired by Native American
herbal wisdom,” saidMonica. “We create a quality product, but
also share cultural knowledge in a way to promote harmony,
balance, sustainability, and cultural education.”
Monica and Marina founded Sister Sky in 1999. Monica's
son, Kevin, suffered from a severe skin condition that causes
dry, inflamed skin.Monica purchased several varieties of creams
and lotions, but none of them alleviated her son's symptoms.
Moreover, many of the products irritated his skin further.
Monica consulted a number of traditional herbalists and began
concocting lotions in her own kitchen, eventually creating
one that helped heal her son's skin. “As Monica was going
through this process, we discussed the possibility of creating
a business,” saidMarina. “It was something we thought we could
dabble in, but as we did more research about the industry we
became more serious about it.”
And so Sister Sky was born. The sisters leased manufacturing
space in their hometown of Spokane from a local resident
who had done some work in the cosmetic industry. The space
came complete with a small, FDA-approved lab andmanufacturing
equipment. “We were able to work with himand became
accustomed to the equipment that's used,” said Marina. “He
helped us learn how to transfer ingredients and size the recipes
into smaller and larger batches.” Monica and Marina's whole
family would work 12- to 13-hour days over entire weekends
mixing raw ingredients, then pouring product into bottles and
boxing them for distribution.
Sister Sky started out in the general gift industry, which
according to Marina is like being a little fish in a vast ocean.
The company regrouped and focused on exactly who their
market should be. “We concentrated on how we could continue
to grow within our culture and within the Indian gaming
industry,” said Marina. “We decided our niche market would
be Indian Country and that we would focus on Native
American hotels and resorts.”The company distributed an array
of soaps, shampoos and lotions to Native hotel and resort
properties with a primary focus being to positively impact
Indian Country.
The products were so popular that the company had tomove
into a larger facility which they built on the Spokane
Reservation. With a larger, more modern facility at their
disposal, Sister Sky can now manufacture larger quantities of
productmore efficiently. “I believe there is such a strong sense
of purpose to what we've built,” said Monica. “We've established
a product linemanufacturer on tribal lands and we fully
intend to create products that are authentic and respectful to
tradition. We take that very seriously in terms of how we
introduce new products.”
Sister Sky's products are created from natural ingredients
and have cultural significance, whether specific historical
value to a particular tribe or pertaining to Native Americans
as a whole. “We had to create a product line that was truly
unique,” said Monica. “What sets us apart is that we create
products that are natural, but also share some type of cultural
wisdom which comes from Native American plant tradition.”
Native Americans have always valued the benefit of healing
herbs, a fact that Sister Sky enhances and highlights with
its product line. “There really is nothing like our product on
the market.”
When Monica and Marina think about creating a new
product, they commit themselves to exhaustive research.
“Somebody might suggest to us, 'You really should do a
cranberry line,'” said Monica. “So we'll determine how
indigenous cultures use cranberry traditionally, then we'll tell
that story. This enhances what we bring to market in a way
people can connect with, in a way that gives personality to the
product line, and in a way that adds value.”
Sister Sky has eliminated as many synthetic ingredients as
possible from its products. Synthetics common to cosmetics,
such as mineral oil, lanolin, and petroleum, are removed and
replaced with natural, healthier alternatives, such as sweet
almond oil, coconut oil, and shea butter. “In addition
to that, when we formulate a product we add botanicals,”
said Monica. For example, Sister Sky's Sweet
Grass line contains elderberry extract, an antioxidant
rich in vitamins A and C. “What we do when we incorporate
any type of botanical or natural ingredients into
our products is keep it as basic as possible and have a
real purpose for adding them.”
Both Marina and Monica are staunch advocates of
entrepreneurship, even working with their tribe to conduct
youth training. “It gives the youth on our reservation
the opportunity to see a business being built,” said
Monica. “We think creating that entrepreneurial spirit
at a young age is positive.” Sister Sky even hires youths
during the summer, exposing them to the entire process of
manufacturing and distribution. “There's a lot of pride inmanufacturing
a product and a great sense of accomplishment.”
Though Sister Sky has had much success in Indian Country,
it hasmany plans for growth. “What we want to do is have
a positive impact on our tribal economy,” said Marina. “And
as we continue to grow, we'd like to locate distribution andmanufacturing
facilities on smaller reservations, creating a network
on tribal lands.”Monica andMarina also see the possibility of
growing into a national brand, expanding into retail stores, and
offering not only bath and body products, but eco-friendly
products as well. “We plan to move forward with our brand
vision,” saidMarina. “Whatever we decide to brand under the
Sister Sky name will have values conducive to our culture.” 
This article appears with permission from Indian Gaming Magazine.

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