By Bianca Consunji and Evan Engel2014-09-18 13:26:45 UTC

This piece is part of Mashable Spotlight, which presents in-depth looks at the people, concepts and issues shaping our digital world.

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RAPID CITY, South Dakota — Payu Harris’ apartment is in shambles.

Pots clutter the kitchen sink; the dish rack holds a cellphone charger. The room smells of stale cat litter and the bathroom tap runs dry. But Harris has more important things on his mind than chores – things that, if he were to have his way, could change the future of the Oglala Lakota tribe.

Harris is the founder of MazaCoin, a digital currency described as “the first Native American cryptocurrency.” On a Wednesday night in late July, he discovers MazaCoin has been delisted from an online currency exchange.

He fires off an email demanding an explanation from the site moderators. He is ready for a fight. “Is it because of the low volume?” Harris wonders aloud. “Is it because they lost faith in it?”

He takes a swig of lukewarm soda from a can – one of roughly six he drinks in a day – and contemplates his next move. It’s the latest in a long string of failures the 39-year-old has endured in his quest to bring MazaCoin to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, located on the border of South Dakota and Nebraska.

It wasn’t always a struggle. Just six months ago, the press lauded MazaCoin as the first brave step to bring a deeply impoverished community into the world of digital currency.


A Lakota man walks by the state line liquor store in White Clay, Nebraska. Pine Ridge has the shortest life expectancy in the United States, partly due to a 75% alcoholism rate.

To Harris, a Cambodian-born Cheyenne Lakota, MazaCoin is a creative economic solution to Pine Ridge’s legacy of problems. Sprawled over 2.8 million acres, the reservation is home to 40,000 members of the Oglala Lakota tribe, one of the poorest communities in America. An 80% unemployment rate forces half the population to live below the poverty line, scraping by on a per-capita income of less than $8,000 a year. The average adult will live 50 years – the shortest life expectancy in the United States – partly due to a 75% alcoholism rate.

“If we’re going to be a sovereign nation, we have to act like it,” Harris says. “Will this currency help rebuild the country and the economy? I believe that it will.”

Pine Ridge residents have long suffered exploitation and abuse, whether at the hands of the U.S. government – which they accuse of failing to uphold treaty obligations – or their own tribal administration, which is frequently accused of corruption. Today, the tribe is facing million-dollar budget cuts from the federal government, which will affect housing, education and health services. A sense of despair hangs over the reservation.

Here, Harris sees an advantage: As a legally sovereign nation, Pine Ridge is a unique candidate for a cryptocurrency. Harris has already allotted 20 million pre-mined coins for the Oglala Lakota tribe as part of a development fund. In theory, as the value of the coins increase, the tribe could become fantastically wealthy, solving some of the financial issues that plague the community.

But the potential for disruption – and conflict – is high. For instance, it’s unclear whether the U.S. could impose any regulations on a state-approved cryptocurrency, or whether the tribe would be obliged to pay taxes were it to forego the federal dollar. Harris, who has no background in law or politics, may be ill-equipped to tackle such nuanced challenges.

“If we’re going to be a sovereign nation, we have to act like it,” Harris says. “Will this currency help rebuild the country and the economy? I believe that it will.”

‘The New Buffalo’

Bitcoin and its brethren have sparked a modern gold rush as speculators, traders and more than a few hucksters fill the market with hopes of an easy payday. For many investors, the fastest perceived route is an altcoin, as the hundreds of non-Bitcoin cryptocurrencies are known. Some altcoins, such as Ripple, are radical departures from the original Bitcoin protocol. Others are little more than slightly modified versions that nonetheless offer features Bitcoin does not. For instance, BitcoinDark is friendlier to tradebots. Peercoin is more monopoly-resistant.

With its 20 million pre-mined coins in reserve, MazaCoin is coded to fix an error that many miners had found in Bitcoin: It didn’t make them rich.


The Lakota economy is heavily reliant on government funding, but recently faced significant budget cuts in housing, education, and medical services.

Cryptocurrencies – and their potential for easy money – represent a second chance for Payu Harris. Unable to finish college, he got by on odd jobs, including a stint at an oil and gas company that cost him four front teeth in an industrial accident. Sharp, articulate and quick on his feet, Harris taught himself how to code. A typical social life, he says, was never an option.

“On the reservation, it’s hard,” he says. “When you have a decent IQ, you end up being the outcast.”

He retreated into chat rooms and online gaming, spending hours hunched over World of Warcraft and Rohan Blood Feud to escape what he perceived as the limitations of his community. “When you want to ask an opinion or strike a conversation that has actual merit, they just look at you like, ‘Huh?’” Harris adds, miming a slack-jawed, blank stare. “I dumb myself down to talk to some people.”

After dabbling in cryptocurrency mining, Harris announced his intention to bring Bitcoin to Pine Ridge in December 2013. His plans attracted the attention of AnonymousPirate, a programmer who, like Bitcoin’s Satoshi Nakamoto, is known only by a pseudonym. Together, the two developed the idea for an entirely new altcoin: MazaCoin.

Headlines announced the tribe adopted MazaCoin as its official currency, which was never true. MazaCoin’s market cap skyrocketed to $6.8 million.

“Altcoins can work; they just have to have some functionality,” says Nick Spanos, director of the New York Bitcoin Center, a rare physical meeting place for digital currency enthusiasts in the heart of the city’s Financial District. “Unless they have something fancy, no one’s going to buy it.”

It was Spanos who first gave Harris his big break. In early March, less than two weeks after the coin launched, Spanos flew Harris to New York City, where he rang the opening bell at the Bitcoin Center and outlined his plans for MazaCoin to a group of eager journalists and potential investors.

“I think cryptocurrencies could be the new buffalo,” Harris told the press. “Once, it was everything for our survival. We used it for food, for clothes, for everything. It was our economy. I think MazaCoin could serve the same purpose.”


The reservation is home to 40,000 members of the Oglala Lakota tribe, one of the poorest communities in America with a per-capita income of less than $8,000 a year.

Harris kept busy during his five-day visit to New York, booking hours of media interviews and visiting the Facebook office to give a presentation about his work. Each time, he donned starched button-down polos and neatly combed hair, a marked difference from the baggy shirts and jeans he favored in South Dakota. “I’ve never done so many interviews in my life,” he says proudly. “I’d stand to get myself a Rockstar, and someone else would have to fetch it for me because my schedule was packed.”

His media offensive extended online, where AnonymousPirate hosted a group chat with interested investors. “Payu will be the next president of the Oglala Lakota Nation,” he declared.

“He has done a very good job evangelizing so far,” one user observed.

But Harris’ evangelizing – or an optimistic press – took things too far. Headlines across the Internet announced that the tribe had already adopted MazaCoin as its official currency, which was never true. The market ran with the news, and by the end of the trip MazaCoin’s market cap skyrocketed by 4,000% to $6.8 million.

None of it would last very long.

‘It’s a scam!’

The short history of altcoins is already littered with corpses of currencies that once were. Of the 400 currencies tracked by, more than half do less than $100 worth of trading every day. More than 80 have no trading volume at all.

This isn’t to say cryptocurrencies are dead on arrival. On the contrary, a few large companies like Orbitz and Overstock accept payment in Bitcoin, and it’s likely more merchants will follow. As of Sept. 10, all but two of the top 10 altcoins (ranked by market capitalization) offered significant innovation on the Bitcoin protocol. The other two — Dogecoin and Monacoin — succeed mostly on the strength of their engaged, meme-loving communities.

But even more so than apps or phones, a successful currency is predicated on widespread adoption, and coming late to the party with nothing new to offer may be the equivalent of not showing up at all.

MazaCoin, offering no obvious technological improvement over Bitcoin, hopes to capitalize on the unity and sovereignty of the Pine Ridge community. But the Oglala Lakota, already mistrustful of powerful institutions, are wary of any new business proposal, not to mention its messenger.


Media outlets mistakenly reported that the Lakota tribe officially adopted MazaCoin as its official currency. Just 10 days after it peaked, MazaCoin plummeted to its pre-New York levels of about $0.0035 per coin.

On March 7, the Native Sun, a South Dakota weekly paper, broke the news that the Lakotas had not, in fact, officially endorsed MazaCoin. The tribal president called Harris’ claims “not true at all,” and spooked investors turned on the coin. Harris backpedaled; the coin wasn’t backed by the formal leadership, he explained, but rather by the tribe’s “treaty council.”

“Everyone suddenly tried to jump off a cliff,” he says. “‘Oh, the tribe doesn’t know anything about it, it’s a scam!’” he mocks in a high-pitched tone.

He has since called the article his biggest setback. Just 10 days after it peaked, MazaCoin plummeted to its pre-New York levels of about $0.0035 per coin, leaving Harris at square one – or perhaps even worse off – in South Dakota.

Perhaps in another place like Silicon Valley, Payu Harris might have more ups. On Pine Ridge, he is at best misunderstood; at worst, regarded as a snake oil salesman.

“The first month from its inception was just a whole whirlwind,” Harris says, “Everyone lifted MazaCoin onto this pedestal where it really didn’t need to be at the time.”

But six months later, unswayed by dismal returns, Harris sounds ready to mount the pedestal once more. As MazaCoin develops, he wants people to come in and see it at work. “They can get a cream puff at the bakery. They can go shopping at the store. If they want to attend college, they can pay for their tuition in MazaCoin.”

His plans don’t end there. MazaCoin, he insists, presents a solution to many of the social issues surrounding the Pine Ridge community – or indeed, even off the reservation. The coin could combat corruption in the tribal government. It could be a weapon against alcoholism. Parts of the code could supplant the complicated tribal ID system, or maybe even find use in the State Department’s passport system. The MazaCoin logo and its underlying philosophy – mitakuye oyasin, meaning “all are related” – could be used as a rallying call to fight for LGBTQ rights.

But for all his big plans, Harris failed to even get a booth selling grilled corn and barbecue at the national powwow, where he was hoping to pitch the coin to fellow Lakotas.

He couldn’t keep his MazaCoin team together, either. In April, AnonymousPirate, who once called Harris his “spiritual brother and best friend,” left the team allegedly due to disagreements over his use of a pseudonym.

“I told him he had to come out with his real name if we wanted to be serious about it,” Harris recalls. “He wasn’t too keen on that.” (AnonymousPirate declined to comment for this story.)

Even Nick Spanos, who once championed Harris, has revised his expectations. “He’s fucked,” he laments, then catches himself and strikes a more hopeful tone. “It’s not a waste; it’s still alive. He’s a smart guy.”

The Catch-22

Half a year from its frenzied inception, the founder of MazaCoin found himself up to his elbows in suds and grease, working as a dishwasher at a local chain restaurant for $10 an hour. He is still struggling to convince vendors to accept the coin in exchange for goods or services both in Rapid City and on the reservation in Pine Ridge. Despite its triumphant debut, MazaCoin is nearly worthless, trading at $0.000078 (as of Sept. 10), valued only by traders who play on the daily fluctuations of altcoins.

“You have a catch-22,” Harris says. “You have people with MazaCoin with nowhere to spend it. You have retailers who are like, ‘We’ll use it once people have it to spend.’”


MazaCoin fell to a fraction of its peak value of $6.8 million, making Harris’ vision of using MazaCoin to fund community projects seem like a pipe dream.

If Harris only wanted to invent another cryptocurrency, he’d be perfectly emblematic of the crypto scene: unfailingly optimistic, technologically obsessed, and supremely self-assured. But he breaks with the movement in his motivations – he seems to genuinely believe in using MazaCoin to improve his local community, rather than to enrich himself or subvert the state. His apparent good intentions haven’t been enough to rally his tribe or even keep the project afloat, but Harris is unfazed by MazaCoin’s slow progress.

“Now all the hype is gone, and it’s time to get the real work in,” he says. “We’re only six months old. We’re still in an era where we can kind of have our ups and downs.”

Perhaps in another place like Silicon Valley, Payu Harris might have more ups. On Pine Ridge, he is at best misunderstood; at worst, regarded as a snake oil salesman. In the cryptocurrency scene, his coin struggles to make its case. Without the support of either community, it’s all too possible that MazaCoin will join the other non-entities at the bottom of the altcoin graveyard.

“If the tribe’s going to sit around and not take advantage of the technology, that’s their choice,” Harris says. “But we’re going to see how far we can go with it, whether it’s going to be another tribe, country or continent.”

The next day, Harris wakes up to an email from the online coin exchange. MazaCoin was not delisted; a technical glitch caused its disappearance.

MazaCoin lives to trade another day.

Photos and video by Bianca Consunji and Evan Engel.