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Jobs and Economic Growth
28 January 2010

BISMARCK (UTN) - In December 2009, President Barack Obama held a forum at the White House about jobs and economic growth. The purpose was to “explore every possible avenue for jobs creation and gather ideas from small business owners and CEOs, labor union representatives, and financial experts, economists and nonprofit leaders, and everyday Americans…” An invitation was extended to local communities to host their own community jobs and economic growth forums between December 4 and 11.

      Students at United Tribes Technical College (UTTC) have a unique perspective to add to the national discussion. To ensure this voice was heard, UTTC President David M. Gipp requested that several focus groups be held with students who represented the college’s different vocations.


Jobs and Economic Growth student focus group at United Tribes Technical College December 8, 2009.

      Members of a small task force coordinated the process: Lisa Stump, UTTC Student Senate; Annette Martel, Retention Coordinator; Debbie Painte, WIA Director; and Cheryl Long Feather, Research Director. The questions were aimed at gaining information about the student perspective.

      Given the short notice and the quick turn-around time for responses, the sessions were held on three consecutive days, December 7-9, during the student lunch hour. Members of the faculty and Student Senate were enlisted to assist in recruiting students. Twenty-nine students participated, representing approximately 85 percent of the UTTC-offered vocations. There were eight men and 21 women who represented seven different tribes in the U.S.

Primary Themes

      The Task Force identified several overall themes from the focus groups. They were grouped as follows by general theme and one overarching theme for each question.

General

  • Students have an understanding of the role of individuals, tribal governments, council members, and the federal government. Students believed the primary role of individuals was to attain both a formal education and an understanding of the economic system we operate in today. The role of tribal council members was identified as having an understanding of micro and macroeconomics and supporting business. The role of the tribal governments is to obtain funding and resources for the People and to manage funds ethically. The role of the federal government is to eliminate the ideological and bureaucratic barriers to reservation development.
  • Students held a firm belief in the sovereignty of tribes and the right to self-determination.
  • Students also held a firm belief in the power of education. They felt that the only way the federal government could really help was to fund education better.
  • There was a great sense of hope about the future. The students did not share the same level of concern about a national recession because the economy has always been worse than national (e.g. unemployment, etc.) on the reservation and that continues to be their primary concern.

Question 1

      Thinking back to the time when you decided to attend college at UTTC, what kind of employment, job, or career did you envision would happen for you after graduation (e.g. what type of job, where, what salary, etc.)?

  • The decision to enter college was a decision based more on survival options than long-term career or job plans. College was seen as a viable option for continued existence and few students thought about what would happen after graduation, other than being able to obtain a generic job. Several students noted that education was a mere first step to helping their families and the tribe, and getting out of “survival mode.”

Question 2

      In the last year or so, the U.S. has been in a recession. How has this economic downturn impacted you as a Native American tribal college student?

  • Students felt Indian reservations are in a constant state of recession so the national recession has little import to them. Indians are “used to poverty” but they can see the impact in declining assistance from various programs (however, also not a new phenomenon). Students believed it was a good time to be in school (the view of school as a survival option) but also feared what would come after graduation.

Question 3

      Think for a moment about the current economic structure in the U.S. (everything from types of jobs, wages, credit systems, banking systems, distribution of wealth). What, if anything, would you change about the structure to ensure economic and jobs growth?

  • Students were keenly aware of the disparity between the “haves” and the “have nots” in larger society and on the reservations and questioned the basis for that. There was a definite cultural perspective of caring for others and sharing wealth. Students believed government could level the playing field by creating more living wage jobs rather than the current disparity of few high-paying jobs and many low-wage jobs. The students also pointed to wasteful spending occurring at the tribal government level and believed resources could be better used with technology.

Question 4

      If there were no barriers such as unemployment or lack of housing, would you prefer to work on your home reservation or off-reservation?

  • The majority of students indicated they would ideally work on their home reservation. However, many of them indicated the need to gain experience or the necessity of working off their respective reservations currently.

Question 5

      What could the U.S. government do to help Tribes develop jobs and encourage economic growth?

  • Students felt the U.S. government was, and still is, a major barrier to economic development on Indian reservations. They cited the stripping of Native resources, (American) societal and governmental greed, bureaucratic red-tape, and chronic underfunding of treaty-based promises as reasons for this. They wanted the federal government to merely stop being a barrier. They also cited a desire for Tribes to return to traditional ways of taking care of ourselves and each other through strategies like community gardens, no longer “outsourcing” (using non-Natives), and using our tribal resources more intelligently.

A complete report on the United Tribes findings was filed with the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. – Editor