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Reservation Jobs, Take 2: Parity with Whites Would Put 8,900 Indians to Work

A couple weeks ago, I mashed together some population and jobs numbers and calculated that South Dakota may undercount unemployment on our American Indian reservations by 57,000, or more than ten percentage points. Today I turn to some locally processed data for a much lower estimate the difference between white and Indian unemployment in South Dakota.

The Black Hills Knowledge Network provides a pile of great data showing the total Indian reservation population, youth percentage of the Indian population, the retirement-age population, and the percentage of working adults aged 16–64 on the reservations.

These data are not perfect; the charts don't provide the age breakdowns for the Lake Traverse and Standing Rock areas, so I've had to extrapolate based on averages from the other reservations. The numbers based on extrapolations are marked yellow below. Plus, the youth population numbers count all under age 18; the working adult counts include kids age 16 and 17.

But here's what I figure: subtract the kids and grannies and grampies from the total population. Multiply that by the given percentage of working adults for each locality to get the number of working adults.

Notice that the working-adult percentage for all of South Dakota is 76.3%. Across all reservations, the average percentage of working adults is 52.1%. So suppose the reservation populations were finding jobs at the same rate as the rest of us. Apply that 76.3% to the working-age reservation population, and we get the number of people who would be on the job if all things were equal. The difference between the actual working-adult numbers and that quasi-ideal state-mirroring number offers another estimate of how many Indians could be working but aren't because of disparities between the reservations and the rest of South Dakota.

%16-64 working # 18-64 working # 18-64 working
if SD rate app'd
IndDiff Guess Indian
Cheyenne River 54.8% 2,460 3,426 965 28.2%
Crow Creek 48.1% 523 830 307 37.0%
Flandreau 66.0% 169 196 26 13.5%
Lower Brule 54.9% 449 624 175 28.0%
Pine Ridge 42.6% 4,373 7,832 3,459 44.2%
Rosebud 46.8% 2,732 4,453 1,722 38.7%
Yankton 64.3% 2,133 2,531 398 15.7%
Lake Traverse 68.5% 4,113 4,581 468 10.2%
Standing Rock 46.6% 2,105 3,446 1,342 38.9%
Indian Totals 52.1% 19,056 27,918 8,862 31.7%
South Dakota 76.3% 377,584 377,584

My math finds 8,862 Indians on the reservations who could be working if job opportunities were uniform across the state. Add those 8,862 to the 16,555 whom state Department of Labor says are out of work across the state (and do add them, because I still don't think South Dakota is counting the reservations in unemployment data), and South Dakota's unemployment rate would rise from 3.7% to 5.7% at the snap of our statistical fingers.

A lazy morning hypothesis would suggest that the 57,000 I calculated earlier this month is an upper bound, while the 8,862 calculated here is a lower bound. Whichever number of mine you accept, if any, I will point to one more chart from the Black Hills Knowledge Network that should inform our economic development policy. According to their count, the difference between the percentage of white South Dakotan adults working and the percentage of our American Indian adult subpopulation working is 36.1% (higher than I calculate!), the highest white-Indian gap in the nation.

Any number you pick says South Dakota policymakers need to do more to bring employment parity to our reservation communities.


  1. Paul Seamans 2014.09.18

    I often wonder if businesses don't locate on reservations because of all the differences in protections offered by state courts and protections offered by all the different tribal courts. If everyone could get together and have a unified approach then businesses would know where they stand. If South Dakota wants economic development and thinks we are short of workers then I would suggest that we figure out how to utilize the workforce on our reservations.

  2. lesliengland 2014.09.18

    a baker lady on the rez has more business than she can handle, and taco johns on the rez was one of the only places to eat for 60 miles or so. go do it. you will succeed. start small.

  3. Steve Hickey 2014.09.18

    Those numbers seem more realistic to me. I've been saying perhaps 10,000 potential employable natives have no access to jobs within a driving distance to their communities.

  4. Roger Cornelius 2014.09.18

    Mr. Seamans,
    There seems to be a myth about corporations or individuals doing business on the reservation because they lack a uniform commercial code, the Oglala Sioux Tribe does have one and does business with off reservation businesses.
    Banks and other lending institutions finance cars, recreational vehicles and other big ticket items for reservation residents.
    Additionally, Pine Ridge village has had a Taco John's for over 20 years. Other recognizable business you will see are Common Cents, Subway, and Pizza Hut to name a few.
    If corporate franchise can successfully operate unhindered by tribal government or the Bureau of Indian Affairs, any business can.
    Why the fallacy of uncooperative or inadequate codes is perpetuated, I don't know.

  5. bearcreekbat 2014.09.18

    Excellent point Roger!

  6. Paul Seamans 2014.09.18

    Roger Cornelius, you seem to be better informed on this than I, does this same analysis extend to the other eight reservations in South Dakota?

  7. Roger Cornelius 2014.09.18

    Quite honestly I'm not familiar with other South Dakota reservation and their uniform commercial codes or the involvement of corporate franchises operating on them.
    A number of years ago there was a national push for tribes to develop their own UCC's, many worked with states to make them compatible with state laws. I helped develop the Oglala Sioux Tribe's UCC way back when, it has since been updated to stay in compliance with some state and federal laws.

  8. Paul Seamans 2014.09.18

    Thanks, Roger Cornelius.

  9. grudznick 2014.09.18

    Mr. C is probably THE expert in this area when it comes to the beautiful piney ridge area of SD and NE. He also probably knows what would work best on many other reservations in South Dakota besides that governed by the OST. I myself have eaten at the Pine Ridge Taco Johns on a number of occasions. It is no more Mexican than any Taco Johns anywhere else, and is pretty much quite the same as every other Taco Johns. Decent food. Not where you'd take your Mexican friends. And the Hardware Hank in Eagle Butte has never failed to satisfy my needs.

  10. lesliengland 2014.09.18


  11. grudznick 2014.09.18

    Ms. leslienglund, that is right! That is EXACTLY the noise made when a fresh chunk of meat hits the grill at Taco Johns in Deadwood. Did you know Taco Johns in Deadwood is the only fast food joint there, really, and they use the same meat as the Taco Johns in Shannon County?

  12. jerry 2014.09.18

    I think Larry Kurtz nailed it with transportation issues for both people and freight. The railroad is coming east from Chamberlain and has the support of both the Lower Brule and the Crow Creek Reservations, it would be a good deal for the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations to show their support for bringing the railroad even further west to Kadoka and then onward to Rapid City. Oelrichs, South Dakota is very close to the border with Pine Ridge and could be used as a rail head for freight as something to think about or a spur to go east onto the reservation. There is already a hotel, restaurant and casino at Prairie Wind Casino for logistics. That rail goes south into Nebraska and then catches into main runs that go all over the United States. So by tying into both lines, the rail could service the country and the world. Their is a vast mine of untapped energy waiting to be paid well for their services and production.

    Now, if we can get the reverend to sponsor healthcare for Medicaid Expansion, we would have some walking around money to put into these projects.

  13. Roger Cornelius 2014.09.18

    The railroad is a long term fix for freight to and from the reservation and may not even happen.
    Trucks from various companies across the country pass through the reservation daily, remember that is U.S. highway 18. The reservation has daily UPS and FEDEX.
    Industries such as the moccasin factory had their own trucks and trailers with full docking and dispatch.
    The Pine Ridge Reservation also has a real shipping advantage, it is centrally located in the U.S. and can ship efficiently to any point in country.
    Compare that advantage to manufacturing and shipping a product from New York to California.
    In getting workers to and from work, there are more cars on the reservation than people may realize. For those that need a ride to work, carpools work well. Owners can even subsidize or share the expense of carpools 50/50.

  14. Roger Cornelius 2014.09.18

    Thanks for your kind words.

    When I worked with economic development on the reservation, I always took the attitude that every problem has a solution.

  15. jerry 2014.09.18

    Yes, Highway 18 is now in very good shape and the access to Pine Ridge is no longer a major problem like it was before the road was fixed. Still, there are areas that do not have good access with roads being to narrow for one, in and around Kyle. To an outsider like myself, the logistics of making the place more accessible with better roads between Rocky Ford and highway 44 as an example, along with access to areas on the reservation so people can go to work and not have to travel so far to get there would be great. If you live around Red Shirt Table and you work in Pine Ridge, it is a distance to go in the winter time and a worry about your kids well being when you are not there to greet them from school. Same goes for all of the other towns and Tiyóspaye areas that are in abundance all along the way. That road is long sometimes between Rocky Ford and highway 18 as well. The railroad would not only help to solve the freight of large items that could be made there, it could also help solve the dilemma of public transportation.

    That is Pine Ridge, now there are the same issues in Rosebud and on the Cheyenne River with long distances between Bridger and Eagle Butte along highway 73 and then highway 212 on the west end of the reservation to put it into prospective. On the Rosebud, much the same with the articles about Parmelee in the news about its isolation to job placement. You then go further into the Blackpipe communities of Norris and Corn Creek with highway 63 being a gravel road that links to the interstate 90. Many things to consider to bring adequate transportation needs to areas that are truly in great need. These can be done with light rail as they were in the past when the place was first opened for settlement. The same can be said about the other reservations, dependable public transportation is what it would take for trade just like in the days rivers were used for the same purpose.

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