Char-Koosta News

The Official Publication of the Flathead Nation online

September 30, 2010

Tribes looking for ways to increase professionally educated tribal members for its workforce

By B.L. Azure

Retired Arlee teacher Frances Vanderburg recounts some of her experiences in education at the Arlee public meeting on Indian education of the Flathead Reservation. (B.L. Azure photo)
Retired Arlee teacher Frances Vanderburg recounts some of her experiences in education at the Arlee public meeting on Indian education of the Flathead Reservation. (B.L. Azure photo)

ARLEE The employment infrastructure of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes is a smorgasbord of jobs ranging from the semi-skilled to the highly educated professional. Most require some type of training or education in order to be considered for the job.

There are at times numerous jobs available within the tribal system but time and time again department heads and/or program managers have to go to the Tribal Council to request permission to hire non-members because the tribal member application pool lacks the desired qualified applicants. Sometimes where possible the job requirements are pared down in order to hire tribal members. However that is not always possible especially in the professional degree areas in the medical and engineering professions.

Consequently the Tribal Council grants the permission to hire non-members, mostly under a contract that ranges from one year to three or four, depending upon the profession.

In an effort to dovetail employment opportunities with required educational background the Tribal Council met with tribal education specialists and some department heads in November. They set a course to develop strategies for increasing the recruitment and graduation rate of tribal members. The goal is to work with Flathead Indian Reservation school districts to ferret out ways to best reach and educate Indian children in preparation for post high school education.

"They Tribal Council is on board with this," said Kevin Howlett, director of the Tribal Health and Human Services and a member of the Education Planning and Review Team (EdPaRT). "They are frustrated too."

Howlett said that 50 percent of the Indian students who enter the first grade in Flathead Indian Reservation public schools don't graduate. And post high school education is just as bleak if not bleaker.

"Very few of the graduates go on to college," Howlett said. "Very, very few of those who do go on to college take the hard courses. The result is there are no pools of Indian medical professionals out there."

Howlett said that there weren't any Indian medical professionals who applied for the medical positions at the recently opened THHS clinic in Polson. As a result he found himself before the Tribal Council requesting permission to hire non-CSKT members or descendents for the highly skilled professions at the clinic.

The CSKT are currently in discussions with PPL Montana about the potential purchase of Kerr Dam in 2015. Operating and managing the facility requires both business and technical/professional education as well as on the job experience.

Howlett said that there are not a lot of college-educated engineers who are tribal members or descendents to draw from. One professionally trained tribal member engineer, Brian Lipscomb, recently accepted a position with the CSKT as its new energy department.

"The long term solution is to grow your own," Howlett said, adding that a tribal member graduating from high school this school year would have about 12 years of college professional education plus residency before they could be considered for a physician's position within THHS. "Even if we started today with recruitment of that senior it would be at least a decade or more before they could practice medicine here."

Howlett said that recruitment theoretically has to start when children start school in the first grade. Students with the aptitude should then be guided to take the necessary public school courses in order to make the college transition easier.

"We have to start somewhere, not as a senior in high school but in elementary school," Howlett said. "It is a long term process that would require constant interaction between the Tribes, the parents and the schools. Ultimately it's the school boards we have to work with. That takes structure and resources."

Howlett said the educators at each of the various public schools as well as Two Eagle River School educating students according to their specific goals and accountability to funding sources. He suggested that they all be brought under one umbrella to address the high drop out rate of Indian students and to map strategies to improve the graduation rate and to arm graduates with a quality education that morphs easily with the step up to college.

"We need a concentrated effort. One board of education that oversees everything," he said. "We need a liaison in every school."

Leslie Caye, Indian Education Specialist at Ronan, cautioned against trying to force anything on school districts.

"Each district is autonomous of the other. You need to create a good one-on-one relationship with them before you try to infuse this on them," Caye said. "You just can't tell them what to do."

Howlett said the intent is not to force things on school districts but to work with them cooperatively to improve retention and graduation of Indian students.

Superintendent of Ronan School District 30, Andy Holmlund said the best route for Indians to work the schools is for Indian people to serve on their local school boards.

The next public meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, October 6, at the Tribal Health and Human Services Diabetes Center. Dinner will be served at 5:30 p.m. and the presentation begins at 6 p.m.

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