Telework could help tribes curb outmigration, but Native workers are being left behind
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Maleah Nore has a job she’s passionate about, promoting mental health and working on suicide prevention in Native communities. But she’d like to do that work closer to the rural southeast Alaskan village where she grew up.
“Part of the reason that we’re experiencing such drain in our villages is that people are forced to move to these huge hubs,” she said, like the Portland metro area where she lives now.
A hybrid model allows Nore to sometimes work from her home office, but not from her Tlingit homelands.
“In order to do the work that we need to do to help our people and get further in this world, we have to leave our villages,” she said. “That is just counterproductive.”
Because distance makes it harder to be a good relative and community member, Nore said.
Jordan Dresser knows what she means. He studied journalism in college, knowing his work would take him away from his home on the Wind River Reservation in central Wyoming.
“I worked at different newspapers across the country, in Denver and North Dakota and Salt Lake City,” Dresser said.
Now as chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council, Dresser sees that as part of a larger problem: The tribe makes big investments in getting its citizens educated. But there are only so many white-collar jobs available in tribal government or in the reservation’s small border towns.
“Unfortunately, a lot of times we don’t have the accommodations to employ those individuals [with higher degrees],” he said. “So they’re going to have to seek employment outside of the reservation here in Wyoming or maybe even out of state.”
Dresser sees a role for remote work in curbing outmigration and helping more Arapaho people find work in their chosen fields.
“It would make me feel good if someone who has a degree in classical literature would be able to work for a university or somewhere else completely outside of these borders but still be able to live here,” he said.
Research from the Brookings Institution and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis’ Center for Indian Country Development finds that the remote work revolution could have unique benefits for tribal communities and economies, but that Native workers are being left behind.
“No one is accessing the remote work environment as little as the American Indian/Alaska Native population,” said Matthew Gregg, a senior economist at the Minneapolis Fed and an author of the report.
At the height of the pandemic, Gregg said, data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows 23% of Native workers were teleworking because of COVID-19, compared to 31% of white workers.
“One of the key reasons is that there’s employment differences between whites and Native Americans,” Gregg said.
Native people are overrepresented in fields we’ve come to know as “essential,” such as health care, education and service work, and underrepresented in office jobs that are more likely to allow telework.
More than two years into the pandemic, Gregg said the telework gap has narrowed, but those occupational differences no longer explain the gap.
“In fact, within occupations, there’s a racial disparity,” he said.
Gregg and his co-author, Robert Maxim, a senior research associate at the Brookings Institution, have some ideas about what else might be going on.
“The first is access — or I should say lack of access — to broadband internet,” Maxim said.
Native households, especially in rural areas, are less likely to have a high-speed connection. By some estimates, as many as 18% of Native people living on reservations lack internet access. Native people are also more likely to live in multigenerational and sometimes overcrowded housing.
“That means they have less space from which they can physically work at home,” Maxim said.
Like a lot of challenges in Indian Country, he said these are the result of decades of underinvestment in tribal infrastructure, despite the federal government’s trust and treaty responsibilities to these communities. It’s a problem that becomes cyclical when tribes can’t keep young people, including some of their most educated citizens, close to home.
“Outmigration makes it more difficult for individual tribal citizens to maintain ties to their culture and their fellow citizens,” Maxim said. “For Native nations as a whole, population loss weakens their ability to operate as sovereign political entities.”
Maxim said the goal is for Native people to be able to work in any field they choose while staying civically active and culturally invested in their tribal communities. Polimana Joshevama, who’s Hopi, feels lucky to have found that balance after leaving her home in Arizona to go to college in New Hampshire.
“I was a little homesick. I missed the mountains, and I missed the sunsets and the land here. I just really felt the need to come back,” she said.
Graduating at the height of the pandemic, when remote work was so common, made getting home a lot easier. She now works for a nonprofit based in Portland, just like Maleah Nore, but she gets to do that work from Tucson.
“Just even being here in the desert, that makes a huge impact on my overall well-being and my mental health,” Joshevama said.
It helps her stay connected to the urban Native community in her home city and to her tribal nation now that she’s just a few hours’ drive away, not a cross-country plane ride.
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