The Blackfeet Brain Drain

Some Native kids who leave to pursue education find themselves stuck between a longing to help their community and the lack of viable employment back home.

Ella Trujillo

I grew up on the high-elevation plains of northwest Montana, on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, in a culture in which English did not become the dominant language until the middle part of the 20th century. Leaving to attend the University of Montana in the mid-1990s, after receiving a tuition waiver the summer following my senior year of high school, marked my first time living away from our reservation. My graduating class was one of the first in which many of us left to seek degrees, a development that mirrored a shift taking place nationwide; by 1996, 30 percent of Native American 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in college, up from about 16 percent in 1989.

Some of us went to college to escape our treaty-established, semi-sovereign homeland and the social and political problems common in Indian country. Others left because there wasn’t anything else to do. Many of us, though, were driven by an idea about higher education that had recently begun to take hold on reservations—that the purpose of college was to prepare us to help our communities. Not until well into adulthood did I realize that this well-meaning notion reflected not only our communities’ need for help, but also their failure to understand that higher education, in the absence of structural change and economic opportunity on the reservation, was likelier to draw young people away from home than to help them make it better.

The relationship between education and economy is more complicated in Indian country than elsewhere in the United States. While access to higher education is a means to a better life as much for American Indians as for anyone else, connotations specific to reservation people exist that trouble the situation. Going to school means leaving a cultural context—which includes many relatives, sometimes too many—that doesn’t occur anywhere else in the country. Departing for college also means engaging with an educational system that does little to break the myth of how this country came to be, one that elides historical facts about broken treaties, Indian law, and Congress’s plenary power over tribal nations.

At the University of Montana, I found myself having to address American ignorance in an exhausting manner, explaining again and again that no, we do not go to school for free, and yes, we do pay taxes; that “blood quantum”—a measurement of a person’s “Indian blood” that determines membership for most tribes—is a colonial invention.

Prior to colonization—for millennia, in fact—the economy of the Blackfoot people revolved around the iinii, or buffalo, which provided not just food, but tepee covers, clothing, tools, and weapons. The animal’s sudden, severe decline in the mid-to-late 1800s, the result of slaughter on the part of Americans hunting for hides and so-called sport, caused enormous cultural chaos for all plains tribes. Within several years, many indigenous people in the vast region were without sustenance. In 1883, as many as 600 Blackfeet starved to death, an event that came to be known as the Starvation Winter. That time still hangs in the air, one of the few historical events discussed on my reservation.

While the recent return of the buffalo to the Blackfeet Reservation has resulted in positive PR, employment statistics in our homeland make clear that their reappearance is largely symbolic. In 2015, the poverty rate among Blackfeet was higher than 38 percent (compared with a national average of 13.5 percent), unemployment was at almost 19 percent (compared with 5.3 percent nationally), and labor-force participation was at 53 percent (compared with 62.7 percent nationally). Many reservations are in rural areas geographically isolated from stronger urban job markets. Although people sometimes perceive casinos as having brought riches to reservations, that’s true in very few cases. Meanwhile, outsiders who might consider investing on reservations have difficulty assessing the risks because tribes are separate sovereign entities, with distinct and unfamiliar laws and legal structures, so they often avoid investing altogether.

And, for various reasons, the kind of economic opportunities that might produce homegrown entrepreneurship are rare. For one thing, many reservation Indians live on land that is held in “trust” by the federal government and managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs—meaning individual tribal members don’t own the property on which they live. As a result, they lack the collateral needed to acquire business loans, a problem compounded by a lack of financial literacy endemic to Indian country.

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.

I often ask myself what our reservation would look like if there had been a healthy economy and a more diverse culture to welcome those from my graduating class who received college degrees. The majority of my high-school classmates who left for school did not come back, opting for stable jobs elsewhere, perhaps returning to the reservation for Christmas or the summer powwow. As for me, I kept drifting. When I was 36, a new job opened up at Blackfeet Community College, one of the few white-collar positions available to someone like me on our reservation. I applied and got the job. Directing the writing center, I hoped, would give me what I needed most: a steady income, time to write, and the opportunity to give back to people in my community. I also intensified my relationship to Blackfoot-language work, helping to start a nonprofit dedicated to the revival of our mother tongue. I went to traditional ceremonies again. I ran into cousins during late-night visits to the convenience store. For the first time since high school, I became a full-time participant in contemporary Blackfeet culture.

At Blackfeet Community College, I found that many of our young people now assume they will go to college. This is the case on reservations across the country, whether that means attending one of the 38 tribal colleges and universities in the United States or another school. In an American sense, reservation people are becoming more educated. But I soon realized that college degrees haven’t translated to Indian graduates regularly securing white-collar jobs in their homelands; years after I graduated college, reservation economies still aren’t substantial enough to provide those careers. When asked what they wanted to do with their future associate’s degrees, my students responded largely with blank looks.

In my students, I saw my 18-year-old self. Many wanted to help our community, and I was at a loss to help them understand how that might happen in a place with such limited opportunities. I didn’t know how to tell them that their basic, human desire for stability and a decent income would contribute to a brain drain that has profoundly affected our economy and politics; that the purported objective of education—that we are to become educated so we can help our communities—is difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish. Without improved economies, higher education simply contributes further to reservation students’ confusion about where they belong in this world.

Though I was one of the few who found the kind of job an educated reservation Indian is supposed to find, I remained conflicted. Due to my professional duties, along with the stress that comes with teaching students from a community broken by colonial force, I found myself writing less. So I applied for a Stegner Fellowship in creative writing at Stanford University, and was accepted.

This fall, I left the reservation again, departing with some sense of failure—of not having done enough. The Stegner Fellowship will potentially provide opportunities unavailable to me otherwise: time to write and professional advancement. Pursuing those experiences, though, will necessitate being away from my reservation for most of the rest of my life. All too often, success for reservation Indians means leaving your heart in your homeland.