Why culture and institutions matter to developing a tribal workforce

Coeur d’Alene Tribe (CDA) member Angelita Soto fillets a fish during the CDA Fisheries Program’s culturally rooted summer youth internship program, 2015. (Photo: Gina Vaughn)


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


In its multi-year project examining tribal workforce development approaches across the country, NCAI’s 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: culture and institutions.


As with Native nation rebuilding generally, culture (more specifically, what some scholars refer to as “cultural match”) plays a vital role in self-determined, effective workforce development solutions. Tribal nations that integrate their distinct cultures, core values, lifeways, and languages into their workforce development approaches in concrete ways enhance their ability to move the human capacity building needle in a positive, sustained direction. This is critical when taking over programs administered by the federal and state government, because those programs don’t speak to tribal cultures or tap into their transformative power as mechanisms for overcoming challenges, strengthening families and communities, and guiding clients down paths to prosperous futures.

It’s no coincidence that as tribal nations have exerted full control over their governance, more and more have recast their workforce development approaches to place tribal cultures at their functional cores. This can take many forms, from core values-based customer service (“caring for our own”) to providing program participants with tangible options to participate in cultural activities or education along with workforce education/training. For example, one nation’s Tribal Vocational Rehabilitation program asks applicants if they would like “the assistance of a person involved with Native healing or Spirituality to be involved with [their] rehabilitation planning?” Most embrace the opportunity.

Such approaches recognize that those who seek workforce education/training often struggle with psychological trauma and cultural alienation that can only be remedied through a real connection to – and reliance on – their culture as the wellspring for personal and professional empowerment. As one workforce development practitioner explains, “When tribal members were taken away and their families split up and their children sent to boarding schools, they lost their culture. We’re finding that the culture can play a huge role in helping people heal and become self-sufficient.”

The culture question not only entails determining where and how a tribal nation should infuse culture into its workforce development approach, but just as importantly, the culture it seeks to foster through that approach and what it says to its people about what the nation values and will value moving forward. For many nations, this involves specific measures designed to uproot the entrenched dependency some citizens have on the government and seed personal and familial self-sufficiency in its place. Growing this culture can be achieved in many ways, such as by: giving clients a “hand-up versus a hand-out” by requiring them to give something (for example, community service) in return for the services they receive; forging work environments rooted in humility, mutual respect, and merit-based advancement; and attaching culture and service requirements to scholarship awards.


The institutions (constitutions, laws, codes, policies, procedures, administrative mechanisms, reporting/communications structures, etc.) that a tribal nation uses to govern play a pivotal role in its ability to forge a workforce development approach capable of achieving its definition of success. Simply put, they are the rules of the road that a nation chooses to live by as it builds a brighter future for itself, in large part by developing its human capacity to accomplish that goal.

When these institutions aren’t well thought out – or when they were created by someone else to advance someone else’s objectives – they tend to provide a weak or unstable foundation upon which to build workforce development success (or do anything else that the nation seeks to achieve). Conversely, when these institutions are deliberately designed by the nation with accountability, consistency, culture, fairness, transparency, and the nation’s strategic vision in mind, they foster the governmental and programmatic stability and deep institutional memory and know-how that a nation needs to realize its long-range human capacity building goals.

It follows, then, that as tribal nations engage in “nation rebuilding,” they are dedicating significant time, energy, thought, and action to assessing the origins and functionality of their institutions, and taking steps to strengthen them or create new ones so that the nation’s governance system is capable of accomplishing its strategic objectives. Through constitutional reform, code development, new laws, overhauling administrative policies and procedures, and other institutional measures, they are building a firm foundation upon which to craft and sustain innovative, tribal approaches to workforce development. As one report on tribal workforce development points out, such institution building empowers tribal nations, enhancing their ability to create “comprehensive social service systems that offer efficiencies, expand available resources, and give [them] greater flexibility and capacity to effectively serve diverse client needs.”

Institution building also helps tribal nations cultivate and retain the human capital they need to build even more of it. According to the Native Nations Institute, finding and keeping capable people to develop a workforce depends not just on competitive pay, but “on creating a working environment that encourages professionalism, processes disputes fairly and effectively, and keeps politics in its place…The presence of such a system...can be a critical factor in encouraging top-quality people – tribal citizens or not – to invest time, energy, and ideas in the future of the nation instead of going to work someplace else.” As one tribal leader puts it, “Building accountability and transparency of the rules ends up being key to having equitable service delivery and equitable systems. And for our [tribal] members, the expectation that it doesn’t matter who you elect, the level of service you receive and your opportunities are the same.”

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

In part 4 of this op-ed series, NCAI’s Partnership for Tribal Governance explores two more strategic considerations for tribal workforce development: leadership and funding.

This essay is the third 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 12-15) produced by NCAI’s Partnership for Tribal Governance.

Op-ed Series:

The following five 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 leadershipand 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 solutionsmatter 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

Comments (1)
No. 1-1

With the 40+ billion dollar industry to Native Tribal Gaming (starting on East Coast, SouthEast, MidWest, NorthWestern, California Tribes, Arizona (Phoenix/Tucson Metro) how exactly "precisely" is Native Tribal Casino Revenue and Gambling important with culture and tribal institutions? This is in light of the fact/instance that you still have 90% = 5.4 MILLION legit native Tribal members still struggling and living below the US Federal Poverty lines. Whereas the the other 600,000 respective total tribal members do not have to "worry" of poverty? Tell me again, how Tribal Gaming Casino revenues are important collectively to cultural and tribal institutions, i.e. poverty?