Education for Economic Development

Aug 15th, 1992 | By | Category: 4-2: Reshaping Tribal Economies, Editor's Essay
By Paul Boyer

EDUCATION MONEY TREETribal colleges were founded with a simple mission: they were expected to prepare students for work, especially for work available in their own communities. One college in the Pacific Northwest started with an emphasis on fisheries, while another in western Montana offered forestry. Many included business degrees for employ­ment in tribal offices. Early education certificates and counseling degrees were also developed, each intended to satisfy local needs.

Many tribal colleges have since expanded far beyond these modest beginnings. But this ability to offer the skills needed for employment on reser­vations quickly earned them the respect of their communities. While many of the colleges existed in makeshift cam­puses and had yet to gain accreditation, they succeeded by offering their students a path to economic independence.

Looking back, this vision may seem unremarkable. After all, Americans automatically equate education with economic opportunity. A college degree will make an individual not just wiser, we believe, but more “employable.” And while institutions of higher learn­ing are respected for their ability to advance a nation intellectually, all stu­dents demand that their investment in time and money also result in, above all, a job. If a college cannot satisfy this most basic of expectations, then something has gone terribly wrong.

But for many Indians living on reserva­tions, American education failed in this task. For them, the nation’s schools, col­leges and universities offered none of the economic guarantees that non-Indian students take for granted. Indeed, for most of the nation’s history, education worked deliberately to ignore the inter­ests of Indian students and the develop­ment needs of their communities.

Education was not offered to empower Indian people on their own terms, but to absorb them into the country’s increasingly domi­nant western economy. In 1785, for example, President Thomas Jefferson urged a visiting Indian delegation to abandon their old life and pick up the plow. “We shall with great pleasure see your people become disposed to culti­vate the earth, to raise herds of useful animals and to spin and weave, for their food and clothing… We will with plea­sure furnish you with implements of the most necessary arts, and with persons who may instruct [you] how to make use of them,” he said.

The agricultural age evolved into the industrial age, hut the attitudes of American educators remained unchanged even as the economic status of American Indians worsened. Schools struggled to find a place for native Americans, but frequently offered only vocational skills that were obsolete or useable only off the reservation. Typically, they were based on the assumption that Indians were “good with their hands,” but not much else.

Even as late as the 1970s, Sinte Gleska University President Lionel Bordeaux encountered influential people who retained simple ideas about appropriate Indian work. While trying to gain federal support for tribal colleges, he was told by one Congressman that native Americans didn’t need colleges. Indians were good at manual labor, Bordeaux was told, and chicken farming would be their path to riches.

But these and countless other propos­als for economic development failed not just because they were simplistic or, at times, insulting. Instead, they were always based on the conviction that reservations and their inhabitants required radical change if they were to succeed economically. Believing that big problems required big solutions, the temptation was always to offer the panacea—agriculture, relocation, industry. As a result, reservations were also treated as economic blank slates, as if poverty meant the complete absence of an existing economy or the presence of economic skills.

But tribal colleges took the opposite view. They believed that the key to development existed within their own communities and could be built by supporting individu­als. Because of this, their progress is incremental. But it is still profound. While there is a critical need for more research, sur­veys completed by individual institutions show that most graduates—80 to 90 percent or more—find work or continue their education after finishing at a tribal college. This con­trasts with the 70 to 80 percent unemployment that exists on many reservations.

Of course, reservation economic development requires more than skilled employees. It also requires—just for starters—the presence of a healthy businesses climate, outside investment, wise use of natural resources and support to tribal entrepreneurs. In poor and isolated reservation communities, these requirements are not easily met.

Acknowledging this, many tribal colleges also work to strengthen the larger economic environment of their commu­nities. Many collaborate with tribal industries to train man­agers and prepare workers. Increasingly, they are also sponsor­ing programs that train entrepreneurs and even make loans to small tribal businesses.

Through this, the work of tribal colleges has expanded. But the focus of their work remains clearly on the community and the individual. It may seem modest. But for reservations, its modesty makes it nothing short of a revolution.

In This Issue

For years, it seemed that more was known about what did not work in reservation economic development than what did. But in recent years optimism has begun to replace uncertainty. In this issue, we examine this new mood and look at programs that offer hope for the future.

The emerging consensus is that sustainable economic growth requires more than large investment projects. Instead, it requires an attention to details. Beyond tribal industries or resorts, reservation leaders must support small businesses—including so-called micro enterprises— and address hidden barriers to investment.

Marjane Ambler examines this movement and reports on the hidden wealth that exists on reservations and the effort by leaders to tap into its riches. Tribal colleges, she reports, are playing an important role, as well.

We also include an interview with Cris Stainbrook, a senior program officer with the Northwest Area Foundation. An expert in reservation economic development, he urges tribes to avoid quick fix solutions that so often failed in the past. Instead, they should focus on a healthy social infrastructure and develop comprehensive business plans.

In addition, Eric Haase interviewed and photographed several entrepreneurs on the Rosebud Reservation who are getting started in business thanks to support from an innovative revolving loan fund developed with assistance from Sinte Gleska University. Another success story comes from the Lummi Reservation where Northwest Indian College is offering technical support to its entrepreneurs.

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