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National statistics say Indigenous unemployment is still high but lacks local data

Taylar Stagner
Wyoming Public Radio
Ryan Tyler (Northern Arapaho) casually walks around the Fremont County Job Fair in mid-February, 2022.

Ryan Tyler is looking for a job. He's Northern Arapaho and already employed but with all the options available at the Fremont County Job fair he wants to keep his choices open.

I asked him what he wants in an ideal job and he surprisingly didn't say anything about a starting wage.

"My only kind of answer to that is just finding what's right for you, instead of spending years, like, 10-20 years in a job that you don't like, and you're making all these regrets when you can just go out and find something else," said Tyler.

Tyler was one of the attendees at the Fremont County job fair at Central Wyoming College. The last time the job fair was held was right before the COVID19 pandemic started in 2019. Attendance was low in comparison to pre-pandemic numbers.

Event staff said that there are a lot of organizations hiring, but not many people are willing to sign on for just anything.

Tyler likes his job at a local grocery store but thinks it's good to keep looking for the best fit.

"Finding a good work environment and finding good people that you're going to work with, you know, people that are going to treat you good, and people are going to value you and your hard work," he said.

Last month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics included Indigenous people in its breakdown of the labor market for the first time. The Bureau said that part of the reason for the hold up was because of issues of sample size.

These numbers report that while the unemployment rate was around 4.4 percent in January for the U.S. as a whole, the unemployment rate for Indigenous people is around 11.1 percent.

That's more than double. Brookings Institute's Robert Maxim who wrote an article dissecting these statistics said this difference is indicative of much more than anyone's work ethic.

"I think that people need to continue to be really conscious about the fact that because of these, what I would say, are government failures, early in the pandemic, to protect native communities, that is going to affect how people choose to re-engage with the economy two years later," he said. "Because they need to think about their health, you can't work if you're not alive, right?"

Maxim said even though this national data is a step in the right direction, the data are incomplete. Partly because being multi-racial isn't accurately represented.

"Almost two thirds of native people identify as two or more races. So, when you separate out two or more race data from people that identify as just Native American, just American Indian or Alaska Native, you're effectively excluding three out of every five Native people in the United States," he said.

On the Wind River Reservation, the job market is slowly coming back to life. Businesses all over central Wyoming at the Fremont County job fair and around half of the booths at the job fair are from the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes. From tribal health positions, child care, and corrections positions with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Jamie Williams, the marketing manager at the Shoshone Rose Casino, said she's looking for applicants at the job fair. She said it's been a slow recovery since the Shoshone Rose closed for 400 days.

"But it has been slow. People, I think, were cautious at first. And I think depending on which side you are on with the pandemic a lot of people are just afraid to resume things like parties and gatherings," she said.

Williams said that it's a different job market now living with COVID-19 and that employers need to be flexible and ready to accommodate a new workforce.

"I think today has been a good start to like rebuilding back the workforce and developing the workforce as well, because we're getting a lot of applicants that don't have a lot of experience, and they're younger, but they're at least looking to get into a job," she said.

While the nation is starting to collect Indigenous unemployment, the State of Wyoming doesn't collect data on racial breakdowns. That makes it hard to account for the Indigenous workforce. Fremont County's unemployment rate, where much of the reservation is located, is around 2.5 percent, but because every other demographic is mixed into that number it doesn't say much about the Indigenous workforce.

The Wind River Tribal Employment Rights Office on the Wind River Reservation said that they don't have data on the local unemployment rates for tribal members. Despite that, the office also said 385 people have signed up for their services to get help finding a job in the last year. But they serve anyone on the reservation, not just tribal members. Their office is also still by appointment due to COVID 19 precautions on the Wind River Reservation.

Brooking Institute's Robert Maxim said the state's lack of data shows that there is still a long way to go in getting good data on the Indigenous workforce in the United States.

"I think there's as much a story there about the fact that there's no data as there is, like, 'Here's what the data says.' Because I think for Native people, the fact that there isn't enough data is itself a story," he said.

Breaking down what is happening to the Indigenous workforce as we continue to live with COVID 19 will need more data.

Taylar Dawn Stagner is a central Wyoming rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has degrees in American Studies, a discipline that interrogates the history and culture of America. She was a Native American Journalist Association Fellow in 2019, and won an Edward R. Murrow Award for her Modern West podcast episode about drag queens in rural spaces in 2021. Stagner is Arapaho and Shoshone.
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