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Homer: Job creation should be Indian country's top priority

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In Indian country in this day in age, we find teenagers who believe that a job at a fast food restaurant is all they are capable of getting. This shouldn't be. These teenagers need to realize that there are bigger and better jobs available to them in their future. In the Palm Springs area, Native American teenagers can't even get a job at a fast food restaurant if they don't speak Spanish. It's time that Indian country stop relying on others for employment opportunities and create their own. Economic development planning for tribes seems to be lagging in one area - job creation.

When you think in terms of unemployment rates and poverty lines in which American Indians find themselves, consider this: "With more than a quarter of Indian people living in poverty, and unemployment rates of reservations more than double the population at large - 13.6 percent on average, and over 80 percent in some communities - there is no group of people with a more urgent economic crisis than American Indians." (National Congress of American Indians, Weaving our future: A proposal for Economic Stimulus in Indian Country, February 2003)

With that in mind, how should tribes go about lessening the gap? One way is through long-range economic development planning. Not very often do we see a comprehensive long-range tribal economic development plan that has the underlying theme of job creation throughout each department, whether it is in the areas of tribal government, environmental, health, human resources, social services, justice, or education. If there were more out there, then perhaps there would be better guidance and understanding between tribal governments and the federal government regarding a tribe's economic stimulus.

An excellent source of job creation is through entrepreneurial enterprises. Why not teach these teenagers as well as other members in their communities the value of going into business themselves? Tribal leaders need to encourage their members to create their own businesses, by offering to them the capital needed or direct them to the means necessary in order to start a small business. Not only is a venture like this beneficial to the business owner, but it also benefits the economic stability of the tribal economy by bringing in dollars and creating jobs. Ultimately, this could only aid the goal of becoming a self-sustaining entity and in developing a strong economy.

One invaluable resource can be found at the U.S. Small Business Administration, Office of Native American Affairs, headed by Ms. Thelma Stiffarm (Gros Ventre Tribe). As the assistant administrator, her job is to outreach to tribal colleges and universities, and to tribal leaders. Her main focus is to get the SBA Office of Native Americans more exposure and to provide more information to Native-owned businesses throughout the United States.

Let's not stop there. Why don't we start educating our youth at the Headstart level about business? Even at that age, they are very aware about the value of a dollar and how much candy it can buy them. They already know about trading their peanut butter and jelly sandwhich for a bag of chips at lunchtime. At this age, they are already acting as businessmen and businesswomen. Why not use this anology to teach them about the business world as it pertains to real life and the global economy? This is where we need to reach these children and get them to start thinking about the opportunities off the reservation and creating opportunities on the reservation. Getting our future business leaders to start thinking as business leaders is where our economic development needs to begin.

In Washington, D.C. there are numerous national Indian organizations creating legislation left and right, but are failing to include the job creation perspective in all aspects. Take for example, a new piece of legislation that is going to provide new housing initiatives on reservations. It's a good thing that there will be new houses for families who need them, but who is building these houses for them? Is it yet another non-Native contractor who swoops in to get the bag full of money? The construction workers who are painstakingly pounding each nail, who are they? Do they really care about the houses they are bulding and who these houses are meant for? If a Native-owned contractor accepted the proposal to build these houses, this means that the money is going back to the community and most likely, construction workers would be hired straight from that community. This means dollars going back into the tribal economy. Now this is a good thing.

This is just one example of how even at the policy making level, job creation is forgotten. Ideally, this is where it should start.

If you are the head of one of these programs or departments think about how you can use those federally funded dollars to create jobs after the money has run out or is running low. Think about the teenager who is looking for a job, a job that isn't there. Think about the new graduates out of college and university, who spent the years and dollars they didn't have in order to help their tribe succeed in the future. It doesn't matter what department you are working for - there is always room for job creation!

Pete Homer, President and CEO of the National Indian Business Association has 36 years of experience in economic development. One of most important problems he has seen is that there is not enough job creation throughout Indian country. National organizations, tribal governments, their departments, and the federal government all need to think seriously about creating jobs, and taking tribal members off the welfare system once and for all.