In 1965, just as President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” hit full stride, a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Banking and Currency opened hearings on Senate bill 1648, which called for the creation of an “Economic Development Administration” to stimulate growth in areas plagued by poverty. The bill specifically mentioned tribal communities and mandated that the Department of Commerce work with the Department of the Interior to implement the act in Indian Country. Curiously, when hearings on S. 1648 began, no one from Interior was present. Even more noteworthy, the subcommittee failed to seek input from tribal leaders. Vine Deloria Jr. (Lakota), who at the time served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, did send a memo supporting the bill, but neither Deloria nor any other American Indian participated in the actual hearings. Instead, a cadre of non- Native senators argued that the proposed legislation would benefit Indian communities and help alleviate the economic distress endemic to Native nations. Senate bill 1648 sailed through both houses of Congress and within a matter of a months LBJ signed the Economic Development Act (EDA) into law.
On the surface, the EDA looked like a good thing. It sought to generate jobs, and create industrial and commercial growth. The act earmarked monies for buildings and other facilities that were tied to specific projects, such as motels, business parks, or other enterprises. It was a project-oriented formula that the act’s supporters believed would work to alleviate poverty throughout the United States. Although the EDA was well-meaning, it was another one-size-fits-all remedy imposed on Native nations by anxious, incogitant lawmakers.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the EDA was that it completely failed to grapple with the root causes of economic underdevelopment in Indian Country. In a 2008 study, The State of the Native Nations, the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development maintained that EDA projects lacked financial accountability, longterm infrastructural development, and any significant Native control. Caustic in their assessment, the authors of the study stated that the EDA’s project-oriented formula left tribal communities “pockmarked with pridedestroying empty and/or dilapidated buildings that operated … as long as fickle funding lasted.” Replacing prudent economic planning with grant seeking, the EDA’s lasting legacy was that it “warped the internal tribal machinery of economic development.”
Fortunately, things have changed since 1965. Through the late 1960s and into the 1970s, Native activists and tribal leaders worked to achieve a much greater degree of sovereignty and, accordingly, more control over their own economic development. New tribally controlled enterprises in Indian Country have resulted in growth. Of course, the statistics also show that Native communities still suffer from disproportionately low average household income and high unemployment rates, as illustrated in Ahmed Al-Asfour’s feature article, “Training for Tomorrow.” Al-Asfour, who serves as the chair of the Business Department at Oglala Lakota College and as the workforce readiness director for the South Dakota Society for Human Resource Management, shows that despite abundant grant opportunities and new business enterprises, Native peoples’ unemployment rates in the Dakotas are nearly twice that of their non-Native counterparts. How can we overcome such bleak and daunting statistics?
Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) stand as one of the greatest resources that Native nations have to train an American Indian workforce and forge entrepreneurial skills that will help develop and expand tribal economies. And they are taking diverse approaches in doing so. As illuminated in this issue’s On Campus news department, Tohono O’odham Community College is collaborating with the tribal government and local agencies to give students workforce experience through its apprenticeship program. Similarly, College of Menominee Nation coordinates with Menominee Tribal Enterprises in training sawyers to work in the tribe’s sustainable forest, while Navajo Technical University is partnering with Arizona Public Service to offer a dual credit program in utility worker training for high school students. And Diné College has just launched a new baccalaureate program in business administration that seeks to develop future entrepreneurs who will help further build the economic capacity of the Navajo Nation.
These are just a few snapshots of how TCUs are taking steps to overcome the long shadow of colonialism that has left a legacy of poverty in its wake. In this issue’s main feature, “Creating Pathways to a Better Life,” Jerry Worley offers an in-depth look at how four tribal colleges in North Dakota and Montana have joined forces to establish the Tribal College Consortium for Developing Montana and North Dakota Workforce, also known as DeMaND. As Worley illuminates, United Tribes Technical College, Fort Peck Community College, Aaniiih Nakoda College, and Cankdeska Cikana Community College are tapping into the region’s economic boom by initiating varied workforce training programs that offer TCU students career pathways.
Turtle Mountain Community College (TMCC), which serves the Anishinaabe of North Dakota, likewise offers an assortment of workforce training programs. The college has also implemented a teacher education program that is training Native instructors for Native classrooms, as showcased in Carmelita Lamb’s (Lipan Apache) article, “Growing Our Own.” Rather than move away from home, graduates of TMCC’s program are remaining in their tribal communities to serve their people. As one student put it, “This is an opportunity to learn the skills I need to go out into my community and give back to my people.”
In its comprehensive study, the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development recognized TCUs as “tremendous assets” that can offer programming to help develop a Native workforce and promote economic development. And unlike the one-size-fitsall policies of the past, TCUs are tribal assets that devise their own curricula and programs to meet their respective nation’s needs. This is precisely why the founders of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium resolved to support the development of new TCUs wherever they may be. AIHEC’s first president, the late Gerald One Feather (Oglala Lakota), recognized the importance of this endeavor and the centrality of tribal sovereignty in any effort to build economic prosperity in Native communities. Today, TCUs are positioned to do just that.
Bradley Shreve, Ph.D., is managing editor of Tribal College Journal.
Clarkin, T. (2001). Federal Indian Policy in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, 1961-1969. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. (2008). The State of the Native Nations: Conditions Under U.S. Policies of Self- Determination. New York: Oxford University Press.