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Native Sun News: Tribes excluded from employment data

The following story was written and reported by Jesse Abernathy. All content © Native Sun News.

PIERRE, SOUTH DAKOTA -- Rates of unemployment on the state’s nine Indian reservations are, at best, staggering.

Ranging from a low of 12 percent on the diminished Yankton Reservation to a high of 89 percent on the largest, wholly in-state reservation, Pine Ridge, such statistics are woefully disparate in comparison to South Dakota’s overall unemployment rate – which is exclusive of Indian reservations – of 4.7 percent.

And these figures have declined little, if at all, since the last American Indian Population and Labor Force Report prepared by the Office of Indian Services of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. The report, which is federally mandated to be published “not less than biennially,” was last released following the end of calendar year 2005. Missing are comprehensive reports from calendar years 2007 and 2009.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Division of Indian and Native American Programs regulates the provision – Public Law 102-477 of the Indian Employment, Training and Related Services Demonstration Act of 1992 – that requires the report to be produced at least every two years.

The state of South Dakota is not accountable for compiling and reporting extensive labor data from the nine tribes of mixed Lakota, Dakota, Nakota and Santee Sioux heritage that lie within its borders.

“That’s been a historic issue,” said Lower Brule Sioux Tribe chairman, Michael Jandreau. “Over 20 years ago, the same thing was brought forth before the state, but (Indian reservations) don’t fit into what America’s trying to prove,” he said.

What America is trying to prove might be that Indian country, with its myriad of imposed economical, political and social issues, is the blight of the nation’s geopolitical landscape. Such official statistics as employment, unemployment and underemployment trends on South Dakota’s Indian reservations can only be obtained through federal agencies and resource sites, including the BIA and the U.S. Census Bureau, which are ostensibly far-removed in comparison to state labor-tracking entities.

This lack of obligation and responsibility is questionable and serves to underscore the state’s diminished recognition and understanding of its large Native American population and the issues that plague this underrepresented demographic. According to the latest census figures, some 72,000 Indians call South Dakota “home” – the third largest Native population in the U.S. by state.

“We need to open more doorways with the state,” said Eric Big Eagle, Crow Creek Sioux Tribe vice chairman. Doing so will enhance meaningful and productive involvement by South Dakota’s government in tribal affairs, he indicated.

“There is low economic development on our reservation,” said Big Eagle. “We have the workforce here; there are just not enough jobs.”

In gathering statewide unemployment information, the South Dakota Department of Labor and Regulation cooperates and collaborates with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, an additional and alternate federal resource agency, under the guise of the Local Area Unemployment Statistics (LAUS) program to extract only estimates on a monthly basis for labor force, employment, unemployment and the unemployment rate.

Currently, there are some 7,300 specific areas included in this nationwide federal-state effort, according to the BLS: census regions and divisions, states, metropolitan areas, metropolitan divisions, micropolitan areas, combined areas, small labor market areas, counties and county equivalents, cities with a population of 25,000 and over, and all cities and towns in New England regardless of population. Indian reservations are explicitly omitted from the coverage area.

“I would call that a vanity issue with the state of South Dakota,” said Perry H. DeCory III, communications specialist for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and founder of the tribe’s KOYA Radio. “The state figures we’re sovereign and don’t need to be included in unemployment statistics. We’re always left out of the loop, and that baffles me,” he said.

Inclusion of Indian reservations in unemployment rate estimates is sheer happenstance, as indicated by the BLS: “If a Native American reservation falls within any of the (data mining) categories, then a set of labor force estimates is created. Due to a lack of resources, the BLS is limited in what it can do on a recurring basis. An additional constraint would be the inability to derive certain needed inputs required of the LAUS program, such as unemployment claims identified to a reservation. The BLS has neither unemployment insurance claims data nor intercensal [between censuses] population estimates to use as a basis for disaggregating [taking apart] data for reservation areas.”

Such circumlocution on the part of the BLS does not provide a solid, in-depth justification for the virtual excommunication of Indian reservations by the federal and state governmental bodies elected to represent them. The lack of resources and pertinent data only touches the surface of the issue: the ‘how?’ and the ‘what?’ – but not the ‘why?’ – of the government’s dis-involvement in gathering and projecting closer to accurate and timely unemployment statistics for the entire state of South Dakota, Indian reservations in particular.

“All the demanding in the world really got us nothing” as far as being included in South Dakota’s official unemployment rate, said Jandreau. “What (we) need to do is force the issue,” he said.

Longstanding high reservation unemployment rates in South Dakota correlate with other socioeconomic issues that plague these areas, according to U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-SD). “There are many factors as to why the unemployment rates are so high, including the rural areas where our tribal communities are located, the cost to build basic infrastructure and lack of housing,” he said.

“Oftentimes, high unemployment rates are directly related to safety and security issues due to the shortage of law enforcement officers and the grossly underfunded courts,” said Thune.

Thune also emphasized the importance of governmental collaboration in addressing Indian country issues. “At the local, state and national level, we have a responsibility to continue to work together to implement policies and changes that will make lasting improvements on our reservations, not quick fixes or temporary solutions,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, (D-SD), a longtime proponent of improving conditions for the state’s Native constituency, echoed Thune’s sentiments. “The effects of the economic downturn we’ve experienced nationwide over the last few years are some of the very same issues that have faced our reservations for far too long,” he said.

“We need the most accurate information possible to make sure federal policy is targeted to address the unique challenges that come with expanding job growth in Indian country,” said Johnson.

But exactly who is responsible for amassing the “most accurate information” in order to “implement policies and changes that will make lasting improvements” on South Dakota’s reservations is not entirely clear. As far as the state is concerned, responsibility seems to have fallen back on the tribes themselves.

This is a divisive contradiction on the part of the state, indicated DeCory. “The state’s always in our business when it comes to matters such as taxation or gaming,” he said. “Including us in figuring the unemployment rate would make them look bad, though.” The state’s claims of low unemployment would be thrown completely out of kilter if all of the unemployed were counted in the totals.

The LBST, the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose land base straddles the South Dakota-North Dakota border but lies primarily in South Dakota, have each conducted intratribal censuses in the past.

“We did our own census which included the number of registered vehicles owned by tribal members,” said DeCory. “At the time of the census, there were at least 1900 new vehicles registered with the (Department of Motor Vehicles) at Winner – that’s a lot of tax revenue for the state,” he said.

Winner borders the Rosebud Reservation and is the administrative center of unincorporated Todd County, which lies entirely within reservation boundaries. The state, however, does not utilize statistics produced by tribes, relying instead on data generated by the Census Bureau.

“What this leads to is the tribes not getting enough funding because the state is relying on inaccurate statistics,” said Jandreau. “Census figures from 2010 will be used until 2020 for funding and, right now, we are already moving past that,” he said.

“By the time we reach 2020, funding amounts will be drastically off due to population change,” Jandreau said.

South Dakota as a state does not entirely populate formalized unemployment statistics, according to Chuck Jirik, assistant regional commissioner for the BLS’s Chicago region office for federal-state programs, which encompasses the state of South Dakota.

“Our statistics only cover areas with populations of 25,000 or more,” he said. In reality, then, only the micropolitan areas of Rapid City and Sioux Falls are included in the state’s unemployment rate estimate.

However, as the BLS is responsible for the methodology by which unemployment rate figures are produced, “we don’t as a rule exclude any particular area,” said Jirik.

“Theoretically, at least, South Dakota is not excluded from the official statistics,” he said. The BLS does have some sub-state thresholds for South Dakota, said Jirik, referring to the more sparsely populated, non-reservation counties that surround both Rapid City and Sioux Falls and ultimately end up populating the state’s official unemployment rate estimation, as well.

Jirik’s befuddling circularity does little to provide a solid explanation as to why South Dakota’s Indian reservations are consistently precluded from unemployment data. South Dakota’s governor, Dennis Daugaard, only reiterated Jirik’s hollow and circuitous explanation as to why the state – and the country as a whole – shuts out Indian reservations when it comes to official, standardized rates of unemployment.

“Each of the 50 states is partners with BLS and follows the BLS methodology to assist in the production of employment and unemployment estimates,” said Daugaard. “Common methodology is critical in the production of these estimates as they are used in the distribution of federal dollars to states, and these common methods allow accurate and valid comparisons between states’ labor force statistics,” he said.

Daugaard’s oft-repeated bureaucratic discourse provides little consolation to the state’s nine Indian reservations with regard to the need for accurate and tangible labor data and real state-allocated federal dollars for crucial employment, unemployment and underemployment support programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Workforce Investment Act initiatives and unemployment insurance.

According to the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s extensive 2009 CASE Statement, a report on socioeconomic conditions on the Pine Ridge reservation based in part on its 2008 intra-tribal census, the solution to alleviating the effects of the tribe’s high unemployment rate is to “build a nation in which both businesses and human beings can flourish.”

Such an undertaking might only be possible via a more intensive and mutually inclusive tribal-state relationship, however.

The state of South Dakota – uninterested though it may be in either allocating or seeking adequate funding for the monthly compilation of unemployment rate statistics that more accurately reflect its Native constituency – would do well by any political standard to actively incorporate the entirety of the nine reservations that lie within its borders.

The spotlight is not on South Dakota’s reservations, though, DeCory conceded. “It never has been, and it’s hard to say if it ever will be,” he said.

“It would probably ruin us or do something better for us” to be included in the state’s official unemployment rate, DeCory said. “Who knows?”

Perhaps further compounding the state’s seeming apathy toward its tribal nations is the continual, and less-than-noteworthy, distinction of being home to America’s poorest counties. According to 2010 U.S. Census figures, Buffalo County tops the list, as it frequently has in the past, with four other South Dakota counties – Shannon, Ziebach, Todd and Corson – also among the country’s poorest ten.

All five South Dakota counties lie either entirely or almost entirely on Indian reservations and have some of the highest unemployment rates in the U.S.

“Poverty has loomed over (Indian) land for generations,” said Nomaan Merchant in the online newspaper, the Huffington Post. “Repeated attempts to create jobs have run into stubborn obstacles: the isolated location, the area’s crumbling infrastructure, a poorly trained population and a tribe that struggles to work with businesses or attract investors,” he said.

Such obstacles are common throughout South Dakota’s Indian reservations.

Bearing the brunt of poverty on the state’s nine Indian reservations are children. According to the latest census data, the poverty rate for South Dakota’s Native American children is about 54 percent, with 14,866 Native children living in households with income below the national poverty line of $23,000.

It may be necessary for the state’s Indian tribes to openly call attention to such alarming – and very real – statistics that are inextricably linked to issues of unemployment and unemployment reporting.

“It’s unfortunate, but the dollars aren’t there to wholly and effectively include South Dakota’s Indian reservations in the official unemployment rate estimate,” said Jirik, in providing a more substantive response to the issue of the state’s perpetually inaccurate unemployment rate estimate.

“I will not argue or dismiss (the) notion that the state’s Indian reservations are distressed,” Jirik said.

“I say that the state’s large Native population is massively misunderstood,” said DeCory. “We can only speculate as to why we are really excluded from the state’s official unemployment rate,” he said.

At press time, U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., had not responded to a request for comment on the issue of the state’s lack of inclusivity of the nine Indian reservations that lie within its borders in the official “statewide” unemployment rate estimate.

(Contact Jesse Abernathy at

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