Why leadership and funding matter to developing a tribal workforce

Students and faculty of the Santa Fe Indian School Leadership Institute’s Summer Policy Academy, an award-winning youth leadership development program, meet with NCAI staff, June 2017. (Photo: NCAI)


Op-ed Series: Building the human capacity to rebuild tribal nations


In its multi-year project examining tribal workforce development approaches across the country, NCAIs Partnership for Tribal Governance (PTG) worked to identify and document key foundational strategies that are empowering tribal innovation and, in turn, workforce development success.

Distilling lessons learned from that endeavor, PTG identified 15 strategic considerations that tribal leaders, workforce development practitioners, and other decision-makers must tackle as they craft workforce development approaches capable of achieving their definition of what success looks like for tribal citizens and the nation as a whole. These mission critical aspects of workforce development have a direct bearing on the ability of tribal workforce development approaches to make a transformative, sustainable difference. The following explores two of those considerations: leadership and funding.


As NCAIs workforce development toolkit explains, establishing sound rules (and governance structures to administer those rules) is vital to a nations ability to design, implement, and sustain an effective workforce development approach. However, establishing clearly understood roles for those who are leading and driving that approach, namely the nations political leaders and programmatic leaders (chief administrative officers, department heads, program coordinators, and on down the line) is equally important. What responsibilities do each have in driving the nations workforce development activities, and how do they work in concert to advance its strategic objectives for human capacity building? Who should exercise what leadership roles, and how should they complement one another?

While defining these roles would seem a simple proposition, for decades many tribal nations have suffered from role confusion, which is due in part to federal policies that defined these roles for them and the organic, often rapid growth that many tribal governments have experienced since the 1960s. According to the Native Nations Institute (NNI), this dynamic is often evident among political leaders, whose roles are unclear, ill-defined, or simply unlimited. In such situations, political leaders (typically chairs and/or councils) decide and do everything because nothing prevents them from doing so; they have done it that way for so long; and it is how the nations programmatic leaders, employees, and citizens expect them to act. Consequently, political leaders time and energy is spent putting out the days fires, solving everyones problems, juggling too many issues, micromanaging tribal programs and businesses, and fixating on every possible detail. Meanwhile, programmatic leaders and their staff wait around for political leaders to act, knowing that any efforts to design and implement better solutions to the nations challenges likely will be overridden by the political leaders. Overall, as NNI points out, no one is forging a strategic vision for the nation, leaving it uncertain of where it wants to go or how to get there.

As the research shows, this is an unworkable formula for Native nation rebuilding generally, and is incapable of fostering the visionary, transformative leadership (from political leaders on down) necessary to craft innovative workforce development approaches that can stand the test of time. Fortunately, through constitutional reform, organizational change, and new policies and procedures, tribal nations are reconsidering and clarifying the respective roles of political and programmatic leaders. As one tribal leader put it, [Political] leadership needs to understand the tools that we have in our organization and figure out how we can effectively leverage those tools and then help other leadership grow. But the task of growing leadership is not confined to those currently serving and working in government; it must also include cultivating community and business leaders as well as the nations future leaders (its youth).


With limited funding for workforce development, one tribal nation had to get creative. Relying on a modest HUD grant, it established a workforce crew to support its housing construction team. Supervised by a licensed contractor, the workforce crew trainees all nation citizens receive on-the-job training, helping to construct more than 25 homes to date. This cost-effective arrangement has enabled the nation to build more houses than it otherwise could, and also equipped the trainees with marketable skills that will make them highly employable on/around the reservation.

This story evokes a daunting reality: the challenge of inadequate resources. Federal funding is critical, and the federal government has trust and treaty responsibilities to provide tribal nations with ample funding enabling them to achieve their workforce development priorities; however, they rarely receive enough federal dollars to do so. Given the long-term federal budget outlook not to mention Indian Countrys growing population the situation isnt likely to improve anytime soon. Tribal nations must think and work outside the box to marshal the financial resources they need to build their human capacity and target those resources for maximum impact. Simply put, tribal ingenuity is the name of the game. Below are some proven strategies for tackling this challenge:

  • Strategic vision: Tribal nations need to have a strategic vision in place, and use it as a lens to assess what funding sources to pursue, and where and how they should fit together. The Coeur dAlene Tribe is a notable example of tribal nations who are doing just that.
  • Discretionary revenues: Tribal nations cant afford to rely on the federal government alone for funding. While easier said than done, they need to create additional streams of discretionary tribal revenue that dont come with the restrictive strings often attached to federal dollars. For example, Ysleta del Sur Pueblos successful pursuit of such a strategy has paid significant economic and workforce development dividends.
  • Funding diversity: Securing dollars from multiple sources enhances tribal nations ability to deftly merge small pools of money into a large funding base that can meet their peoples needs.
  • Coordinating funding: Coordinating sources across tribal programs enhances a nations ability to capitalize on cost-saving opportunities and collectively leverage funding sources with in-kind contributions and volunteerism to strengthen service provision. For example, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana has made this a centerpiece of its approach.
  • Supplementing funding: Many tribal nations task tribal dollars to supplement federal grant funding to expand programs that work well, increasing the number of people they can serve.
  • Reducing administrative costs: This can be accomplished in many ways, notably by consolidating programs and streamlining federal reporting requirements through 477 Plans, etc.
  • Casting a wide net: Tribal nations should leave no stone unturned in their search for flexible funding (federal, state, foundation, etc.) that can enhance their efforts. For instance, there are several Department of Labor grants that they are eligible for, yet few ever apply.

For more information about how tribal nations are crafting innovative, self-governed approaches to workforce development, please clickhere.

In part 5 of this op-ed series, NCAIs Partnership for Tribal Governance explores two more strategic considerations for tribal workforce development: citizen engagement and assessment.

This essay is the fourth in a series of eight op-eds exploring the keys to success in and the key strategic considerations for tribal workforce development. It is drawn from a newtribal workforce development toolkit(see pages 16-19) produced by NCAIs Partnership for Tribal Governance.

Op-ed Series:

The following four op-eds will each explore two other strategic considerations for tribal workforce development:

Op-ed #1: Tribal workforce development: Success starts with governance

Op-ed #2: Why strategic vision and integration matter to developing a tribal workforce

Op-ed #3: Why institutions and culture matter to developing a tribal workforce

Op-ed #4: Why leadership and funding matter to developing a tribal workforce

Op-ed #5: Why citizen engagement and assessment matter to developing a tribal workforce

Op-ed #6: Why removing obstacles and targeted solutions matter to developing a tribal workforce

Op-ed #7: Why closing the loop and advancement matter to developing a tribal workforce

Op-ed #8: Why partnerships and sustainability matter to developing a tribal workforce

(The National Congress of American Indians is the owner of Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.)