Payu Harris knew early on that his so-called “bright idea’ would require a great deal of commitment and a thick skin. Having crossed paths with a mysterious programmer named “Anonymous Pirate” who helped plant the seed of the idea, Harris boldly proposed moving the Oglala Sioux nation off of the U.S. dollar to a brand new currency.
Today, MazaCoin is the Official Sovereign National Currency of the nearly 47,000 member nation, traditionally known as the Oglala Lakota. A community situated on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, it’s the eighth-largest Indian reservation in the U.S. Harris, a Cheyenne with Oglala Sioux heritage who resides in Rapid City, strongly believes that MazaCoin is a vital key to building a store of wealth for all Native Americans, a people who have long faced extreme poverty and marginalization.
As the first Native American Cryptocurrency, MazaCoin functions as a decentralized payment system and distributed currency exchange for the nation. As is the case with bitcoin and many other digital currencies, it can be owned and used by anyone (including non-tribal members) to purchase goods and services from anyone that accepts it as payment.
According to Harris, the first coin actually hit the blockchain in February of 2013. Now there are nearly 600,000,000 MazaCoins currently on the market.
“The word ‘Maza’ actually means iron,” says Harris in an interview with BTCMANAGER. “Our actual Lakota word for money is Mazaska which means ‘white iron,’ which was the original way that we used to describe the silver coin.”
An Arduous Journey
In our interview with Harris, he recounted a challenging path in terms of both the creation and acceptance of MazaCoin, which he says only strengthened his determination to see it succeed. “It certainly has been an interesting couple of years. All of this originally began with a program I founded called the BTC Oyate Initiative. (Oyate is the Lakota word for ‘people’). The original idea was to use bitcoin as a way to free the people from fiat currency. This started out well. Then I was approached by Anonymous Pirate who suggested that we start our own currency for the tribe. I said, ‘OK, let us see where this can go.’ The next thing I know, we had our IPO in NY, leading to a $10 million market cap in just 4 days.”
That’s when things started to get interesting, says Harris. “It was around this time that some person who appeared to know nothing about bitcoin or cryptocurrencies came forward, claiming that the tribe was unaware of MazaCoin and that it was a scam. This, of course, sent the rumor mill abuzz and everyone started to talk. Then a newspaper which claimed they had been trying to reach me about this did a Google search on bitcoin. And of course, what pops up? Stories about Silk Road and Mt Gox. So instead of doing any research or fact finding on cryptocurrencies, they simply wrote off MazaCoin as illegal.”
When asked what continued to drive him despite tough odds, Harris points to the desire to help Native Americans to overcome their long legacy of poverty and outside dependency.
Still, people sometimes question his motives. “People ask me all the time how I’m making money off MazaCoin. And my response is, I’m not. For me this is a labor of love, a way to simply support our people.”
Harris points to the fact that the Oglala Sioux of South Dakota is arguably America’s most impoverished Native American band. Amid this malaise, poor residents make do on an average of $2,892 a year, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. And unemployment is rampant at nearly 75 percent.
Harris says that one of the primary objectives of MazaCoin is to break the Oglala Sioux nation’s dependence on the millions of dollars of annual funding it receives from the federal government. Creating a “self-sufficient” nation he says is vital to the band’s long-term survival.
Toward this endeavor, he notes that they are looking to capitalize on a number of favorable tax and regulatory advantages available to them as a sovereign nation. Native American bands like the Oglala Sioux are exempt from federal income taxes. Tribal members do pay federal taxes, although credits and deductions typically reduce these obligations to zero. “There is no doubt that the sovereignty of the tribe puts us in a very unique political and legal situation,” says Harris.
In terms of building adoption and acceptance of MazaCoin, Harris is personally taking a grassroots, feet-to-the-ground approach. “In all of the months I’ve spent talking to businesses, when I mention MazaCoin, at first they just kinda look at me, smile and say to come back when the concept is further along. Then when I visit again a month or so later, they’ll typically ask me, ‘How is that crypto thing you been working on going?’ When I tell them that we now have a new MazaCoin debit card and are working on a point-of-sale terminal for these transactions, suddenly they want to sit down soon and discuss it.”
Harris notes that there are now several promising developments in the works. With the demise of Cryptsy, Cryptopia is the primary exchange for MazaCoin. Moreover, a number of new apps and mobile wallets are in the works, including one that they hope to integrate with Coinomy. There are even talks of developing significant, long-term applications using the blockchain, such as using it as a repository for tribal member IDs as a means of preventing forgeries. Best of all, Harris says, lots of new outsiders are actively getting involved in the cause. “People tell me that they like the fact that we have persevered and now have stability.”
Perhaps the biggest case for how far MazaCoin has come, according to Harris, is the reception he now receives from the Oglala Sioux tribal leadership. “I often think back to a couple of years ago when our tribal vice-president was adamantly against MazaCoin. Now whenever I meet with him he just leans forward and smiles with approval.”