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Day Labor Program Strives To Increase Opportunity On Northern Cheyenne Reservation

Kayla Desroches
Yellowstone Public Radio
A man signs up at the Western Native Voice booth

Northern Cheyenne tribal leadership and partners are striving to find solutions to unemployment from within the community.

People gathered on the tribal building lawn on a warm, sunny Tuesday in Lame Deer. They were signing up to be added to a work lottery.

The names will be selected randomly three times a week for daily job opportunities. For $9 an hour, participants can work in a community garden, clean up trash, and pass out census information.

Some people, like Theresa Magdeline Crazymule Woundedeye, have been without work for a while now.

“But I’m so glad that this opportunity is here, and I’m just excitedly waiting,” she said. “I have grandchildren that I’d like to go forward and continue to provide [for], and basically just get back up on my feet.”

She’s one of more than 40 people who signed up for the program on Tuesday. As a whole, the country is experiencing high employment rates, but that’s not the case in Lame Deer, where jobs can be hard to find.

In 2019, the unemployment rate on the reservation has ranged from 11 to 16 percent according to the state Department of Labor. That’s higher than the Montana unemployment average, which hasn’t risen above 5 percent this year.

The Let’s All Work Together program aims to simplify the job search and create more opportunities on the reservation.

That sounds good to Lonnie Bighead, who said he recently hitchhiked more than an hour and half to Billings for work. He said he’d like to find a job in Lame Deer.

“It helps with self esteem. That’s what it does,” he said. “It makes you feel good when you come home and say ‘hey man, I just got done working.’”

He said finding a job can be hard for people in the area who, like him, don’t own a car or cell phone. Charlene Alden knows what people go through to find jobs here.

“It’s so cumbersome,” she said.

Alden directs the tribe’s department of environmental protection.

“We’re not making it real hard or difficult,” she said. “You don’t have to have a driver’s license. You don’t have to have a high school diploma. You don’t have to have any degrees.”

It starts with a one-page application. That’s because the directors want the program to be accessible. They call it getting “a hand up” instead of getting a “hand out.”

“That’s what we’re trying to get away from, is the dependency that was created by the United States of America,” said Alden.

She said it can be hard to create programs like this without federal funding, but that the majority of funding right now comes from a non-profit called Western Native Voice. It advocates for Native rights around the state. The Northern Cheyenne Tribe also pitched in, along with tribal agencies and other local partners.

Manípí Elkshoulder wants to provide for himself. When the program launches next week, he hopes he’ll be selected to work.

“‘Cause I’m unemployed at the moment right now, so anything would do right now,” he said.

He used to do construction but was laid off about four months ago. Recently, he’s been coming to downtown Lame Deer to sign up for every job he can find.

“Trying to aim for something I can ride on,” he said. “Get my life going.”

But he said it can be hard to find work on the reservation.

It’ll get a little bit easier after next Tuesday. That’s when the program is set to launch. Elkshoulder said bring it on—he’s ready to work any day of the week.

Right now, he’ll make $9 dollars an hour, but organizer Charlene Alden said that’s just the start. If the program is successful, she hopes to put more money in people’s pockets.

Kayla writes about energy policy, the oil and gas industry and new electricity developments.