Development on the reservationJul 27, 2017 By Alejandra Silva, Staff Writer
Many families on the Wind River Indian Reservation lack adequate housing, food, heat and income.
These everyday hurdles were highlighted last week during the Wind River Gathering on Economic Development hosted by the Wind River Native Advocacy Center.
During the event, community members specializing in health, economic opportunity, employment services and education were able to offer a few suggestions for solutions to the problems impacting Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribal members.
During a panel discussion, moderator and WRNA director Jason Baldes asked Wyoming Public Media reporter Melodie Edwards, Lillian Zuniga from the Wyoming Office of Health Equity, Wind River Development Fund director Cy Lee and Community Builders Inc. principal consultant Joe Coyne what they knew about the stated issues. The panelists also talked about their efforts to help the reservation community.
The gathering continued after the panel with presentations from Wes Martel, a former business council member and current tribal leader in economic development; Angela King with the University of Wyoming; Christa Stream with the Wind River Job Corps; Lynne McAuliffe with Central Wyoming College; Deanna Crofts with the Department of Workforce Services; and Charelle Beatty with the Native American Development Corporation.
Zuniga said her work has shown a lack of health benefits has a big impact on life expectancy for tribal members. It also has an impact on the likelihood of people living in poverty conditions to graduate from high school.
"Your education is very important," she said. "You make $36,000 less than someone who graduates from college."
Graduates are more likely to get good jobs that come with health benefits; they also are more likely to live to a nicer neighborhood.
Sixty percent of a person's life is impacted by where they live, work and play, Zuniga said, while 40 percent is based on the individual's behavior.
Children especially need help when it comes to their individual behavior, she stressed.
While covering issues with housing on the reservation, Edwards said she found there was a struggle to obtain adequate funding to create more housing and to improve the already existing housing units. The problem has led to overcrowding in houses: Sixty percent of the reservation community would be considered homeless if people who "stacked up" in homes were included in the statistics, she said.
In her reporting she heard a lot of stories about discrimination from tribal members, Edwards continued. Often, she said, landlords didn't seem to know that their actions constituted discrimination, and those people would benefit from available training session.
Across the United States, she said, one in four American Indians experience housing discrimination. Based on her interviews with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Edwards said that agency would like it if more people came forward with their stories of discrimination.
"Not a lot of people are telling HUD of these instances," she said.
Coyne talked about his group's work with the tribes to provide consulting services related to community planning and development, economic development, finance, grant writing, business plans, project management, strategic planning, operations and human resources.
"It has helped us identify some disparities (and) inequities," he said, noting a need for leadership development and a solid foundation in workforce training.
The reason the reservation struggles with economic development is because a "sustainable block hasn't been built" to help opportunities grow, he explained. For example, the tribes don't have an established Uniform Commercial Code - a collection of business laws that regulate financial contracts.
Everyone adopts a UCC, Coyne said, and the tribes have the right to create their own because they're a sovereign nation.
Many tribal members also lack a credit score - or have a terrible one, he added. Having bad or no credit creates problems for people who want to obtain loans to move or buy homes in better neighborhoods.
Lee said more events like the Wind River Gathering could help address problems related to economic development on the reservation. The gatherings help "create momentum that goes beyond elected officials," he said, noting that tribal members can't solely rely on the government to bring opportunities to the reservation. Talking about the issues is a strategy for starting an initiative toward solutions. Discussions also help the community understand what economic development is and who is responsible for it.
"It's not the government's responsibility," he said. "Using somebody else's free money is not economic development."
Coyne talked about the strength of the reservation and its tribal members, who could grow their tourism market by utilizing their culture, land and people.
Tourists travel through the reservation every day to get to Yellowstone National Park, he pointed out. Those people are interested in authentic American Indian food and crafts and want to attend cultural events.
He also suggested that the tribes invest in their youth by training young people for leading jobs and supporting educators who help students.
"These kids care," Coyne said. "Invest in them, help them learn."
Baldes noted that 85 percent of the reservation population is under the age of 30.
Edwards repeated a suggestion she heard from Northern Arapaho Tribal Housing Authority director Patrick Goggles, who said it would help to build homes differently on the reservation - perhaps larger homes with more bathrooms, bigger open spaces, bigger kitchens, and spaces that were culturally sensitive to tribal members. Locating homes in near schools or community hubs and walkways could also help improve the reservation, she added.
Baldes provided gathering attendees with statistics that may offer solid reasons to help reservation families.
Almost 24 percent of tribal members said they don't have adequate funds for food, he said, and about 13 percent said that during the past year not everyone in their household had enough to eat. Twenty-two percent of native respondents said their household needs are inadequate. They also said propane is their major heat source, followed by electric heat, natural gas and wood or coal.
Almost 19 percent of tribal members said they don't have adequate heat in the winter, and 38 percent request financial help with utilities.
Homelessness, "couch-surfing" and overcrowding also are concerns for reservation families. Households of six or more people increased from 13 percent to 22 percent for Northern Arapaho tribal members and from 6 percent to 11 percent for Eastern Shoshone tribal members from 1998 to 2010.
Comparing the native populations to the rest of the state, Baldes said about 11 percent of Wyoming residents - or about 63,400 people - live below the poverty line, meaning their income is less than $24,250 for a family of four. By contrast, 62 percent of Arapaho people live below the poverty line, as do 47 percent Shoshone people, 57 percent "other" natives, and 29 percent non-natives on the reservation.
The median household income is $16,000 for Arapaho tribal members and $25,000 for Shoshone tribal members. For Wyoming, the median household income was reported at $54,000.
Additional information notes that 22 percent of Arapaho people and 15 percent of Shoshone people had a household income of less than $7,000 annually.
Baldes also noted that fresh fruits and vegetables are harder to obtain on the reservation, and fry bread is now considered a staple of reservation culture even though it isn't historically native food.
Fry bread was invented to make use of government commodities, Baldes explained, but it is low in nutritional value and contributes to obesity.
Diabetes was not a disease found in the native population prior to the influx of Europeans, he said. Now, however, it is the third leading cause of death on the reservation.