Tribal workforce development: Success starts with governance

Gloria Paiz of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo’s AmeriCorps program, which the pueblo has “Tigua-fied” to foster civic contributions by its people. (Photo: Ysleta del Sur Pueblo)

ICT editorial team

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

NCAI Partnership for Tribal Governance

A movement is sweeping across Indian Country. Over the past several decades, a growing number of tribal nations have reclaimed their right to govern their own affairs, and are slowly but surely charting brighter futures of their own making. Wrestling primary-decision making authority away from the federal government, they are “addressing severe social problems, building sustainable economies, and reinvigorating their cultures, languages, and ways of life.” In the process, they are affirming what Native peoples have always known – that tribal self-determination and self-governance is the only policy capable of improving their lives and the quality of life in their communities.

One Native scholar has described this movement, commonly referred to as “Native nation rebuilding,” as “a revolution of the spirit.” For most tribal leaders, employees, and citizens, this process requires decolonizing and redesigning the governance systems and tools upon which their nations have long relied. This is perhaps nowhere more critical than with workforce development – how a tribal nation grows the capacity of its people to lead productive, satisfying lives and contribute in meaningful ways to the economic, social, and cultural life of the nation so that it can be sustained for generations to come.

For tribal nations, workforce development is not simply about reducing the reservation unemployment rate or helping a tribal citizen get and keep a job. Certainly, those things are important; however, for tribal nations, workforce development is about much more. It is about identifying and creating opportunities and then preparing their citizens to seize those opportunities by forging difference-making careers that strengthen not only the citizens, but their families as well. It is about revitalizing tribal communities and cultures. It is about eradicating despair and dependency, and fostering self-sufficiency and hope in their place.

NCAI’s research confirms that achieving “success” in workforce development comes down, ultimately, to what tribal nations do. It depends on a tribal nation’s willingness and ability to claim and exercise true ownership over the initiatives, programs, services, and activities dedicated to cultivating the minds, skills, and expertise of its people; how those things are structured; and for what overarching purposes. It hinges on tribal innovation from the ground up and the inside out: tribal nations discarding uniform approaches designed by outsiders such as the federal government, and creating in their place sensible, tribal approaches based on their particular cultures, values, challenges, circumstances, and priorities. As one tribal workforce development expert puts it, “Innovation is the springboard of the good things that have happened in Indian Country for so many years.”

This in no way lets the federal government off the hook. On the contrary, it has fundamental trust and treaty obligations to support tribal workforce development – on tribal terms. Its proper role is to work closely with tribal nations to identify and remove the obstacles that currently obstruct tribal innovation, and create new opportunities for tribal ingenuity to take root and flourish. Its task is to endow its systems, processes, programs, and funding protocols with the ease and adaptability that tribal nations have shown they need to effectively build their human capacity in culturally appropriate ways for the purpose of achieving their community and economic development goals. Ultimately, according to one longtime tribal workforce development expert, “It’s about letting tribes be tribes, and doing things in a tribal way.”

When this occurs, the benefits can be transformative. As NCAI’s Policy Research Center concluded in 2012, self-governed “tribal investments in higher education and workforce development have multiple and far-reaching benefits that extend beyond individuals – that equip tribes to exercise their sovereignty as governments and to serve both the socioeconomic and cultural interests of their citizens.”

Success Starts with Tribal Governance

The late Joe DeLaCruz, longtime President of the Quinault Indian Nation and former President of the National Congress of American Indians, once remarked, “No right is more sacred to a nation, to a people, than the right to freely determine its social, economic, political, and cultural future without external interferences. The fullest expression of this right occurs when a nation freely governs itself.”

When it comes to workforce development, forging and sustaining success depends, above all else, on tribal control: the willingness and ability of a tribal nation to seize and exercise control over the programs and activities that work to develop its human capacity. More and more tribal nations (along with Native organizations and tribal colleges and universities) are recognizing this fact and acting on it.

Taking control is an essential first step, but taking control of what exactly? For many, achieving practical sovereignty in workforce development means taking control of federal, state, and other programs designed by outsiders for other places and purposes that typically ignore reservation conditions and fail to consider tribal priorities.

Not surprisingly, these uniform, “outside in” approaches have a poor track record for many reasons. For example, they typically were not designed with Native people and their specific needs in mind. As one tribal workforce development practitioner explains, “Many of the grants and contracts that we have to administer are framed in what it would look like in a major urban city in America. That’s not our reality.” These programs also define and measure success based on performance criteria (reporting requirements, metrics, etc.) that often aren’t relevant to the particular challenges, values, and goals of tribal nations. Additionally, they are naturally risk-averse, which stifles any desire or commitment to adapt in order to find and grow success over time.

Tribal nations simply taking over administration of these programs won’t change how they function and can improve their effectiveness only so much. The challenge for tribal leaders and key decision-makers is how to build a truly self-governed workforce development approach, either from whole cloth or more likely by moving beyond self-administering programs to fundamentally redesign them. One tribal leader summarized the challenge this way: “What are we doing differently in this time of self-determination, when supposedly we are in control, different from the times that we weren’t, that we were critical of?”

For those who have done it, forging such an approach is empowering. As one workforce development practitioner whose nation has embraced this challenge surmised, “We are no longer victims of our history. We are now impacting and directing where we are going as a tribe.”

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

In part 2 of this op-ed series, NCAI’s Partnership for Tribal Governance explores two more strategic considerations to tribal workforce development: strategic vision and integration.

This essay is the first in a series of eight op-eds focused on the keys to success in – and the key strategic considerations for – tribal workforce development. It is drawn from a newtribal workforce development toolkitproduced by NCAI’s Partnership for Tribal Governance.

(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.)