Like many rural tribal nations, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate struggled for years to combat high levels of unemployment and widespread poverty. Even as recently as 20 years ago, employment opportunities for tribal citizens were limited and the fight against poverty remained a top priority for the tribal government. However, with the establishment of the Dakota Western Bagging factory and several gaming facilities, the Nation experienced rapid economic growth. In fact, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate is now the largest employer in the north east corner of the state of South Dakota, employing approximately 800-900 people within the tribal government, the tribal college, tribal gaming facilities, and the Dakota Western Bagging factory. While jobs have become plentiful, many people have been unable to maintain employment and by the year 2000, the Nation was experiencing a seventy percent employee turnover rate.
In June 2001, a group of representatives from professional and service programs in the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Nation-including the Dakota Nation Gaming Enterprise (DNGE), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, Tribal Employment Rights Organization (TERO), and the Sisseton-Wahpeton College-came together to discuss the employee retention problem. These programs and businesses were witnessing a rotating stream of employees who were hired, then fired or quit who would then return to new places of employment and start the cycle again. Seeking to break the cycle, the group began identifying a common set of factors for these "at-risk" employees.
Among primary factors contributing to employee turnover rates, the group found that the adult population of the Nation often had little to no work experience before reaching their late 20s and 30s and even fewer had experience working with non-Natives. Many tribal citizens did not have practice working under specific time schedules and were unprepared to manage their time effectively. In addition, a number of citizens lacked formal education, often holding less than a high school degree. The lack of reliable public and private transportation, as well as difficulty finding adequate and affordable day care options, especially for single parent families, added challenges to maintaining employment. Multiplying the effects of the primary factors, a number of secondary concerns exist. People were struggling with a variety of issues, including drug and alcohol addictions, depression, effects of abuse, and the lasting consequences of intergenerational poverty. Limited inter- and intra-personal skills appeared to be a common thread underlying most of these factors and truly affecting a person's abiltity to meet the internal and external challenges of keeping a job.
The representatives from the professional and service programs realized it would be necessary to move beyond the usual job skills training of resume writing and interviewing and create a program focused on developing inter- and intra-personal skills. Addressing these skills would not only help "at-risk" employees become better workers, but would also empower citizens to become healthier people, positively impacting both families and the community. The Professional Empowerment Program (PEP) was established to accomplish this and it offered its first two-week course in 2002.
PEP is deeply rooted and integrated in the fabric of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Nation. Although PEP borrows techniques from other programs, it modifies them to be more applicable to their own community and to traditional Dakota values. By integrating Dakota culture into the training curriculum, participants feel a direct connection between their everyday lives and the skills they are developing.
The program is also deeply integrated into the more formal organization of the tribal government and business enterprises. PEP was created and supported through a unique collaboration among tribal programs, businesses, and services. Because of this collaborative partnership between tribal departments and agencies, including education, welfare, health care, and mental health services, PEP participants are better able to access services with PEP acting as a facilitator. Because PEP is so successful at teaching inter- and intra-personal skills, the Nation has instituted an on-going manager/supervisor training program for all tribal businesses and entities.
The presence of a program like PEP is making a positive difference in the economy and in the community of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Nation. Citizens are retaining their jobs, tribal employers are getting better, more productive employees, and individuals are able to become healthier and happier people. By starting with a solid belief that "nobody is expendable" and a dedication to improving the overall well-being of its citizens, the Nation is able to create a program addressing the holistic needs of each person through a focus on inter- and intra-personal skills rooted in the fabric of the tribal community.
- Nations are wise to create holistic programs fostering healthy individuals, thereby contributing to a strong, professional workforce as well as the overall well-being of the community.
- By focusing on the development of inter- and intra-personal skills that incorporate cultural values, individuals can be empowered to be better family members, employees, and citizens.
- Collaboration across departments, services, and employers can better facilitate professional and personal development for citizens most in need of support.