AGENCY VILLAGE, S.D. - The Department of Labor awarded a more than $3
million grant to the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate YouthBuild project, the first
such Labor Department grant in Indian country.
The grant funds were presented to tribal officials by Secretary of Labor
Elaine Chao in Sioux Falls, South Dakota's largest city and some 150 miles
from the Lake Traverse Reservation where the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Tribe
The grant will fund programs for education and work training for at-risk
youths ages 14 - 24 as part of the Youth Offender Demonstration Project.
This grant award from the Department of Labor raises some questions of
timing and politics. South Dakota is in the midst of a heated political
campaign between Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D. and Republican John Thune, who is
supported by the Bush administration.
Rep. Stephanie Herseth, D-S.D. is challenged by Republican Larry Diedrich,
also supported by the Bush administration. American Indians in the state
have a proven track record of voting for Democrats and are given credit for
turning out a large number of voters to reelect Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D. by
a slight margin and electing Herseth to Congress in a 2004 special
Jobs are scarce on the reservations with unemployment running at up to 80
percent and according to Chairman J.C. Crawford unemployment was 81 percent
for the Sisseton-Wahpeton. The state boasts an unemployment rate of 3.4
Jobs and training top the wish lists of many reservations. When Assistant
Secretary of Labor for Employment and Training Emily Stover DeRocco was
asked, she said the grant was not politically motivated.
Richard Tall Bear, CEO of Red Nations, Inc. the company contracted to write
the grant, agreed it was not political, but also said "they [the Bush administration] are taking advantage of it."
In her remarks at the ceremony, Secretary Chao mentioned that 1.5 million
jobs had been created in the past three months and that the unemployment
rate in the nation was at 5.6 percent, better, she said than during
President Clinton's administration.
"This economy is strong and growing stronger," she said.
"The administration recognizes that there are people on the reservation who
need help. This grant represents great hope and a partnership with young
people," Chao said.
The YouthBuild project will assist up to 400 youths in the next two years
with an opportunity to receive an education and be trained with job skills
in a working atmosphere. The project will partner with Sisseton-Wahpeton
The Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate lost eight youths in a matter of two weeks to
vehicle accidents and tribal leaders sought out a program that could help
solve the problem. This program will provide opportunities to help youths
build life skills to guide them to future employment.
Susan Tall Bear, director of the YouthBuild program said the $3.1 million
grant will mean her staff can relax knowing it is fully funded for the next
two years. "That is a huge weight off our shoulders," she said.
The program is designed to address the needs of young people who left high
school before graduation, but the Sisseton-Wahpeton program has been
expanded to include some young people who have graduated from high school,
but still don't have the skills to attend college or to find suitable work.
The youths will, if needed, receive a G.E.D. or upgrade their skills in
other academic areas including writing and math, Tall Bear said.
The students attend classes in the mornings and work in the afternoons. But
while working they will be taught about the use of various tools, proper
measuring techniques and learn various aspects of construction as they
apply other skills to the projects.
The Lake Traverse Reservation is home to some 750 youths under the age of
24. Tall Bear said and that presents a problem as the reservation
population increases at the rate of 2 percent each year. Jobs don't
For the first two weeks the youths undergo orientation and evaluation for
chemical and alcohol dependency. They are also evaluated for educational
needs and undergo skill-level assessments.
The program for the past few months has been funded by the tribe and
progress is already visible. A park at Agency Village Dam is almost
completely refurbished. Before the project started the dam was described as
a dumping ground, but now, Richard Tall Bear said, people are talking about
the park with pride and using it. Also a clean-up effort for the entire
community has taken place and people are coming out of their homes.
Physical labor is part of the program, Susan Tall Bear said. Work projects
that will benefit the tribe are built into the project guidelines. In the
future the youths will have the skills to help with home building and other
projects to benefit the tribe.
The youths can also gain skills in other areas related to construction and
trade. Susan Tall Bear said each student is evaluated to determine what
their goals may be. Some want to work with computers and others are
interested in office management. The office of YouthBuild will expand and
some of those youths will work on the Web site and in the office.
The Department of Labor wants to expand its grant program to more
reservations across the country DeRocco said. The $3.1 million awarded to
Sisseton-Wahpeton is part of $54 million available nationwide.
The Youth Offender Demonstration Project grants are competitive. DeRocco
said the DOL awarded a similar grant to the Urban League as a
community-based organization. "We hope to do more in Indian country,"
"This tribal organization is in the best position to reach the youngest
sector of this population who might not otherwise be served. Using the
tribe's rich cultural resources, along with those available through local
employment and training agencies, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate plans to reduce
recidivism and provide the training and other assistance needed to move
young Native Americans into good jobs with career ladders," DeRocco said.
Crawford said that 90 percent of all youths incarcerated in the local and
county law enforcement facilities and in the court system are American
Indian. This is another reason for the continuation of YouthBuild.
An earlier effort to support youths, the Coalition for Kids and Families
faded because of lack of funding and no formal organizational structure,
Also individual districts provided some programs for youths, but they
didn't address the needs of the ex-offender population, Crawford said.
Susan Tall Bear said the YouthBuild program has shown that this type of
project could be successful and that is what led to the successful grant
"The students are surprising us every day. They work together well and are
constantly involved," Susan Tall Bear said.