By: Patrick Heiman, Training and Technical Assistance Manager, ICF                                                    


The views expressed in In Focus are exclusively those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect official positions of their employers or clients. References to materials or services in the public domain do not imply endorsement from those entities

Job search. Apprenticeship. Soft skill development. Job shadowing. Resume development. Career pathways. Ask most individuals what steps to prioritize on the path to employment and self-sufficiency and you’ll likely get a similar list of activities. The common, prevailing theory is that economic self-sufficiency requires financial independence and stable employment: train for a position or a better job, find work, stay employed, and become free of social service dependence.


Now let’s consider a different list. Pottery and jewelry making. Winter solstice religious ceremonies. Livestock herding. Salmon fishing. Teaching or learning a tribal language. Traditional clothes-making. At first glance, some individuals may not associate these activities with becoming self-sufficient. For American Indians, the connection between economics and self-sufficiency is important, but many tribes also consider activities like the ones listed above to be equally important in leading individuals to become productive, contributing members of society.


As sovereign nations with defined rules of governance, tribes operate programs with a high degree of autonomy. This independence typically allows tribes to tailor social service supports to accommodate local economic opportunities as well as to reflect tribal cultural values and traditions. Tribes’ adaption of the Tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program is one example of this kind of cultural integration. Tribal TANF provides job preparation, employment, and supportive services in an effort to help individuals obtain economic self-sufficiency. As part of their participation, Tribal TANF clients agree to engage in a certain number of work requirement activities each month. With Tribal TANF, clients have the option to include traditional cultural activities in their self-sufficiency plans and have these count towards their work requirements. These activities can include teaching subsistence skills, hunting, fishing, and gathering, caring for elders, and creating traditional arts and crafts.


Why do tribes ultimately elect to support traditional activities through programs like TANF? The reasons can be economic and cultural. Supporting cultural activities through TANF can have clear financial connections. On the Skokomish reservation in Washington State, the TANF program provides diving equipment and training, which allows clients to become geoduck (a saltwater shellfish) harvesters (a potentially lucrative seasonal form of employment). Skokomish case managers report that divers often generate enough revenue to exit TANF and become self-sufficient.


But financial motivations are just one piece of the puzzle. Within many tribal nations there is a growing movement to promote American Indian culture and language. Tribal TANF has become a significant catalyst for that movement. Supported activities—such as beading workshops, traditional celebrations for client accomplishments, talks with tribal elders, and tribal language instruction—all help clients obtain a greater sense of self, an enhanced feeling of belonging with the tribe, and an improved understanding of the history and future direction of the tribe.


A case manager for the South Puget Intertribal Planning Agency (SPIPA) expressed the importance of Tribal TANF funded cultural activities: “If you don’t know who you are and where you came from, you don’t know where you’re going”.


Interested in reading more about what my colleagues have to say about the interconnectedness of tribal culture and workforce programs? Check out this Office of Family Assistance webinar titled Broadening the Scope of Work Activities: Using Cultural Activities in Tribal Communities.