Trimble: No easy answers in Indian country

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It was Jan. 28, 1986, in the boardroom of the American Indian National Bank in Washington, DC. I remember the date well because of why the meeting ended abruptly. I and a couple of my associates of Charles Trimble Company were briefing then-Congressman John McCain on the findings of a recent study we conducted.

Well into our presentation, a staff member came into the room and handed the Congressman a note with breaking news: the space shuttle Challenger had just blown up, killing the entire crew. The meeting ended there.

We were briefing the Congressman on Enterprise Zones, Foreign Trade Zones, and other tax and trade incentives and how they might be applicable to Indian reservations to help tribes attract industry and capital. Enterprise Zones were being considered by Congress for enactment. We wanted to make sure that Indian tribes were included as eligible entities for their tax relief provisions.

This all came back to me recently when I read a column by national columnist Tim Giago, “Jobs and Homes in Indian Country.” One statement caught my attention: “Congress has the power to make a dramatic difference. It could offer financial incentives to any major corporation willing to build a factory on the reservation.”

Back then, in that meeting with McCain, I might have agreed with that. Subsequently we learned that it wasn’t all that simple. In meetings with executives of major corporations we did a simple survey. We listed various factors and asked them to prioritize the influence of each factor on a decision to locate a factory at any particular area.

They ranked items like markets, infrastructure, municipal services and transportation high by their considerations. Especially important to them was the availability of a motivated and job-ready work force. Tax incentives, however, were low in their priorities. Such incentives, they said, might tip the scale if two equally attractive prospects were in contention.

The absence of most of these priority factors are immediate disincentives for businesses that might consider moving to a reservation; but the biggest problem is the work force factor. We got an appreciation of this problem later when we did an economic base analysis for a tribe in the northern plains.

This tribe was led for many years by a very effective chairman. Several factories filled the tribe’s industrial park, including one with large defense contracts. Jobs were plentiful. The tribe’s chairman had done creative marketing to attract those industries, including assuring them that the tribe would help offset early losses due to training needs of its members.

We interviewed executives of those factories and learned that their first few years of operation had employee turnover rates as high as 200 percent, with much absenteeism. Ultimately the tribal chairman’s request for patience paid off; eventually the factories had a stable work force in the factories.

This reflects a situation that plagues many tribes in their economic development efforts, whether it is a local tribal initiative or an outside industry: an unmotivated and undependable work force – in short, the lack of a work ethic.

In the northern plains especially, it is likely that many reservation families are in their third generation of joblessness, and are totally dependent on welfare. This chronic state of joblessness results in not only lack of experience, but lack of confidence and motivation.

Regardless of whatever excuses or reasons might be given for the absence of – or even the rejection of – the “white man’s work ethic,” the results nevertheless are the absence of industry and jobs on reservations. And that is the principal reason for our poverty.

Many of our people have become dependent on the federal and tribal governments to provide the necessities of life. It is a fact that much of this results from a century of Indian policy in which the federal government assumed an overly protective – even stifling – role as trustee, and viewed the role of the tribes and their members as that of incompetent wards.

This was done not only in accordance with fiduciary responsibility, but more as a means of keeping Indians under their control. Wholesale dependency and a lack of economic development resulted.

As for attracting industry, it is a very difficult thing, even with generous incentives. And as my associates and I learned, we should not expect big business to do anything out of a sense of altruism. Doing “good” means little to them, unless by doing good they can make money in the process. Their business is making money, not giving it away.

To the contrary, any altruism on their part is often to cover sleazy motives. [In our studies we found that several manufacturing businesses offered to tribes by large corporations, presented as benevolent gestures, were actually failing and were being dumped on unwary tribes desperate for jobs, and thus vulnerable to such chicanery.]

Once again, the challenge comes back to the tribes and Indian leaders.
It does Indian country no good to have the answers to our economic problems over-simplified as only a lack of government assistance or legislated incentives. And it doesn’t do us any good to blame others – our federal trustee or greedy big business. We must take it upon ourselves to correct the deficiencies and disincentives in our tribal communities.

It’s not just a case of job training, but one of teaching a work ethic from an early age. That includes hands-on experience, no matter how menial the task. Tribes might try sponsoring programs for youth to clean up the villages and the countryside on reservations, restoring cemeteries, or serving in internship programs in tribal and federal offices. The program could include teaching about the real-world discipline of the work ethic. Other programs could start the process of teaching youth the importance of budgeting and saving earned wages.

This all may sound simplistic and preachy but the process has got to start somewhere.

Again, no one can do it for us; certainly not the government, although the feds should not be let off the hook for things such as seed financing and training, and trust-related development.

And finally, we don’t need anyone making us feel good with excuses for our deficiencies. It might be said that our people on the reservations are choosing preservation of traditional Indian ways and rejection of white man’s ways, and other excuses and shibboleths some scholars and writers use to patronize Indian people. I knew many very traditional people in my village of Wanblee, men like Louis Whirlwind Horse and Luther High Horse, who had an excellent work ethic without sacrificing a bit of traditional culture.

But if we accept the attitude of “our ways, take it or leave it,” then we should not cry over the consequences of dependency and poverty that inevitably result.

Charles E. Trimble, Oglala Lakota, was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-78. He is President of Red Willow Institute in Omaha, Neb. and a columnist for Indian Country Today.