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The Natives Issue

Get Off Your Ass

I’m the manager of Nin-Nah-Too-Sii (“Chief Sun” in Blackfoot), an employment-contract managing business. We started because of the huge need we have here on the reservation for work.
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Κείμενο Anna Bullshoe
1.1.06

I’m the manager of Nin-Nah-Too-Sii (“Chief Sun” in Blackfoot), an employment-contract managing business. We started because of the huge need we have here on the reservation for work. We have Manpower here, and they are finding work for people, but we are different from them in that we’re a for-profit company. What we want to do is use our revenue to start small businesses here on the rez. I used to be the job developer at the Blackfeet Manpower, and I left there just to start this. As a for-profit, we use our number one resource, which is our potential workforce, and we go out there and look for contracts to put people to work. Because of the recent hurricanes, we’ve actually sent 42 people down to New Orleans to do some roofing and we are sending another 18 to Texas. These are individual contracts we are working from for these, and we get a percentage of each contract. [Between Manpower, Nin-Nah-Too-Sii, and other organizations on the reservation, the Blackfeet have sent 313 people to work on disaster-relief and reconstruction projects—Ed.] So we’re like an employment agency, basically. We want to build it and build it to where we can really help the entire tribe to be more stable economically. Working at Manpower and seeing our unemployment rate hit 71 percent and having people come in asking for jobs every single day taught me that we need to not only train people, but also get them out there looking for jobs off the reservation. One of the common goals that we’re working toward is taking this workforce and getting their skills specialized. We want to teach Blackfeet workers to do carpentry, disaster relief, and any number of things. That’s how we will be competitive and win contracts in other towns and other states, and help Blackfeet people to start their own businesses. Unemployment is a big problem here because we have a depressed economy and we’re rural. I can give a number of reasons why people are not employed, but I don’t want to get into it. What I would rather say is that all these people are employable. Getting industry to come to Browning is a real dream of ours. We have so many incentives. Businesses that make contracts with our tribe get a 5 percent incentive from the Federal government right off the bat. They get 5 percent out of every dollar that they pay in wages to us. That is a huge tax write-off. A big draw here is our wind energy, but we’ve had a really big ruckus about that lately. We have one of the best spots in the continental United States for wind energy. We had a chance about a year and a half ago to get some outside investors to invest in wind turbines here. It’s at a total standstill, and it’s all because of the Blackfeet Tribal Council. There is so much dissension and bureaucracy there. Wind turbines would bring permanent employment here, and they would also lift our economy because right now our electricity and gas bills are so high. There are homes here that go without heat and lights in the middle of winter because they cannot afford it. Wind energy could help with that. A possible downside is that it would open up the reservation to more people and there would be a lot of cultural and social changes here. But you know what? We’ve been changing and adapting as a people for years. We just have to believe in ourselves and who we are as Blackfeet people to know that we’ll get through it. We pride ourselves on being adaptable. But yeah, if we were to bring in wind turbines it would also bring in people to train us to work them. Engineers would be coming in too. All these people would need housing and training facilities, but this is where the merge could come in. The need for new housing for new people would create a lot of jobs. And the people who would come in at first with the wind turbines, they would only be here for a while. Blackfeet people who get trained by them would be here a lot longer. Because we are so economically depressed, we have a lot of alcoholism and a lot of drug abuse. Bringing a fresh new industry like wind energy would get us to lift ourselves up socially. And we will do it from a grassroots place, not asking the government for help. We have been living off the government for too long and now we are all conditioned to just stand there and wait for that handout. We have a program tribe, not a business tribe. Business tribes pull in industry and set up their own economy. But we’re so set in that program-tribe way that we just wait for the next grant to come in. There are plenty of tribes that are all business, like the casino tribes. Some tribes have really taken their sovereignty and used it—not just held onto it and coveted it. The Flathead tribe here in Montana is one such tribe. They have excellent business skills. Then there are the Seminoles, another tribe that has taken the initiative to step out of that rely-on-the-government mentality. You can’t really blame tribes for having that mind frame, though. The entire trauma that we’ve been through has caused us to internalize that dependent mind-set. The governing body of the Blackfeet is called the Tribal Council. It’s a group of nine people that are elected to four-year terms. We’ve run into a lot of opposition from them. Some have said that we don’t have the experience to do what we’re trying. To date, the tribe has invested about $40,000 in us, and we have had to struggle every part of the way for that. Honestly, and this is my gut feeling on this, I think that the Council is afraid of what we’re doing. That’s because we have been taught to fear failure. They are afraid to take chances. So we decided, “You know what? We won’t ask you.” Our commitment is to the people first, anyway, not to the Council. Commitment to the people first is who we are as a tribe. If we can get back to that mind-set, we will be on our way. The Blackfeet were not traditionally an “I” and “me” society. We were an “us” and “ours” culture. When that original mind-set breaks down and weakens, that’s when you get the kind of dissension that we have up there in our Tribal Council. We’re working on a project right now to get stewardship of the local forests and make all the labor-intensive work like tree planting and trail maintenance into jobs for Blackfeet. The Tribal Council has held that project up as well. The Council is nine people, but we have 15,500-plus enrolled Blackfeet members. With 70 percent unemployed, do we wait for these nine people to reach their decisions or do we just get on with it? We’re fighting for the latter. ANNA BULLSHOE