The Evaluation of the Tribal Welfare-to-Work Grants Program: Initial Implementation Findings. Cultural-Historical Circumstances of Tribes That Limit Employment and Economic Development


The historical experience and cultures of tribes affect employment in Indian country. Relevant factors include (1) racism and discrimination against Indians; (2) values and expectations about cultural and environmental preservation, work, and development; and (3) limited English-speaking skills associated with English as a second language.

A history of being the target of exclusion, discrimination, and racist stereotypes can contribute, among Native Americans, to a suspicion about or rejection of non-Indian initiatives, programs, and enterprises. Tribal leaders and program managers at most of the study sites said that relatively few tribal members are employed by non-Indian businesses in "border towns" near reservations. The primary explanations given for low levels of employment of Indians in border towns were hostile attitudes of non-Indians toward the tribe and its members, rooted in a history of intergroup conflict and competition, racism, and employment discrimination against Indians. Informants described such prejudice and discrimination as less acute in some areas (for example, Alaska, North Carolina) and as more acute in others (for example, Idaho, North Dakota). In general, prejudice and discrimination were given more often as explanations for low levels of off-reservation employment of Indians but less often for low levels of investment in reservation economies.

Conversely, tribal members may have negative views and expectations about non-Indian, off-reservation enterprises and organizations, and these negative views can be a barrier to economic and business development on a reservation. For example, tribal members may see non-Indian, private-sector enterprises as exploiters of Indian resources and people rather than as employers, innovators, and producers. Many study informants expressed concern about protecting the environment from pollution and a desire to conserve tribal lands for the benefit of future generations. This concern is heightened by the sense that reservations seem to attract interests wanting to dispose of medical, radioactive, and other waste products. Thus, before obtaining tribal approval, private-sector investments must pass intense scrutiny to ensure the environment is protected. These considerations have led some tribes to adopt a "do-it-yourself" approach to business development and job creation, preferring to develop enterprises without outside partners or to limit the roles these partners play.

The tribes in this study did not focus in their economic development plans on sales of goods or services to federal or state agencies, despite federal legislation and policies promoting such sales. For example, all federally recognized tribes are included in "historically underutilized business zones" (HUBZones). Participants in this program can receive federal contracts through competitions limited to qualified HUBZone firms, or on a sole-source basis. HUBZone firms are also given a price preference in bidding during full and open competition over non-HUBZone large firms. A similar federal program, the SBA 8(a) program for minority-owned business, has special inducements for tribal participation. However, the HUBZone and 8(a) programs did not appear to play an important role in the economic development plans of the tribes or consortia in the study.

Informants at each study site stressed the importance of preserving the tribal culture and identity. These values go hand in hand with the desire for self-determination and self-governance and can sometimes pose a barrier to business and economic development on the reservation. Study informants expressed concerns that, without strict tribal control, economic and business development might be hostile to (or inadvertently damage) traditional tribal culture and values. Tribal culture is often seen as fragile and still recovering from systematic past efforts by both private sector and governmental interests to eliminate it. (17)

While most American Indians and Alaska Natives speak English as their first language, there are those for whom English is a second language and who have limited English-language skills. Considerable variation exists in the degree to which English is the language of choice in Indian country. In many tribes, most members use English almost exclusively. In other tribes, most members use the native language. In the study sample, English was not the preferred language for many members of the Alaska Native villages comprising Tanana Chiefs Conference and for members of the Navajo Nation. When combined with low levels of education, the lack of English-speaking skills can represent a critical barrier to employment of tribal members.

Finally, there is a paradox of high unemployment, low income, and wealth for some tribes. For example, unemployment is very high in some Alaska Native villages, but many villagers are stockholders in multimillion-dollar Native corporations. In accordance with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA), tribes and Native villages in Alaska have formed 13 regional for-profit Native corporations (e.g., Bristol Bay Native Corporation, Doyon, Limited, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation). The revenues of some of the regional Native corporations approach $1 billion, and they have invested in or purchased enterprises throughout the United States. Despite the success of many of the corporations, relatively few jobs have been created in the Alaska Native villages; rather, jobs tend to be created in cities, where there is greater demand for goods and services. Furthermore, with the aim of making profits for their stockholders, Native corporations have made investments outside of Alaska. The annual dividends paid to stockholders remain modest, generally less than $2,000 per stockholder. On some reservations, gaming has produced wealth for the tribe and has created jobs; however, especially for large tribes, the number of jobs created by gaming enterprises may be small in relation to the number of unemployed or underemployed tribal members.