What no one ever told me at college, I assume because it seemed self-evident to them, is that higher education is associated with a white-collar economy. When you come from a reservation, where any such economy is unlikely to exist, understanding what a degree is supposed to do is difficult. In my case, I happened upon Jack Kerouac’s work when I was 19, and became a writer. I dropped out of school, not sure how higher education related to writing fiction, unsure if I’d ever reenroll. Thus began a pattern—drop out, reenroll, drop out, reenroll.
Each move home brought an overwhelming sense of relief after the stultifying atmosphere of attending class with non-Indian students I found bafflingly humorless. (In even the darkest of times, Blackfoot prefer to laugh at life and one another.) But returning home also showed me what awaited if I stayed there: substitute-teaching gigs, working at the diner, or managing my family’s convenience store, where I often stood in the parking lot listening to the vast, predawn silence of the northern plains, drinking coffee and waiting for the first customer. Much later in life, I recognized these experiences as my first encounters with the economic hardship that dominates Indian country.
Though the general message for people like me is that the purpose of higher education is to return home to help our community, the reality is that the economy on most reservations cannot support the work that’s needed. The kinds of jobs most Americans might associate with a healthy, middle- or upper-middle-class economy—software development, sales, marketing—are nonexistent. Other occupations so common to healthy economies that we often take them for granted, such as counselorships, managerial positions, and careers with nonprofits and the state and federal government, are rare.
Perhaps it is telling that the most lucrative job available to me, during my stints back home, involved doing controversial work in the oil-and-gas industry, acquiring lease signatures from Blackfeet landowners who lived on our reservation and around the western United States. To outsiders, Indians participating in the extraction of resources from their land by American corporations uninterested in tribal nations’ well-being might appear contradictory. The reality is that, in our devastated economies, many people have little other choice.
None of these were jobs I wanted. I craved to be around writers, and the writers I knew were on campuses and in urban areas. I felt a need to be in a culture where the fine arts were appreciated, where that type of intellectual discussion was commonplace. Each time I left school, these things brought me back. After nine years, at my mom’s urging, I finally graduated. Much later, I learned my long undergrad arc, with its staccato enrollment, is common for a reservation Native.