Tribal Preference 2.0
The national political scene is rife with certain subjects that rarely go stale. Environmentalism, taxes, abortion, same-sex marriage, handguns, illegal immigration–the list changes, expands, but never seems to contract. I’ve long thought that in our own Tribal political sphere we too have topics which at any time can start arguments. There are the obvious ones, like per capita and enrollment, and the one which as a Council member we get hit with frequently, Tribal member employment.
I’ve written about this before, several years ago, at a time the subject was luke warm. But now as Council once again eyes creating a Tribal Employment Rights Ordinance/Office, debate can begin anew. Several things have happened recently to revive this discussion, the most recent being that we sat through a full day and a half of TERO lecturing with a special consultant, and several of my co-workers’ interest was piqued by a visit with a fellow Oregon tribe. I liked what I heard conceptually those two days, and the man who our Executive Office flew over to provide a crash course was passionate and offered compelling reasons to consider instituting some form of TERO. This is the most interested I’ve been, admittedly.
But I also have reasons to remain skeptical, and maybe even cynical. Two years ago we spent considerable time trying to develop an ordinance that would address Tribal preference, one that died a quiet death. To date I am unclear as to what motivated all that. It seemed primarily to be addressing the numerous complaints we get about a perceived problem in hiring our own people, usually at Spirit Mountain Casino. I use the word “perceived” because most of what we hear is anecdotal. Real problems could very well exist, and serious ones at that, but I’ve had little data to go on. Anecdotes are not the same as statistics.
I do know that since Spirit Mountain Casino opened in 1995 we have averaged 10% Tribal member employment over the years consistently. That has remained steady, even after numerous expansions created additional jobs, and after different phases of Tribal housing sprung up in Grand Ronde which would have presumably provided more places to live for member employees. To some, the apparent inability to get past that enigmatic 10% number is a failure. The TERO consultant certainly said as much. For me, I am unsure as there might be legitimate reasons.
To me, this is where the subject gets complicated. We have Tribal members, and maybe even Council members, who are firm in their belief that we employ people in Grand Ronde who just don’t want to see Tribal members succeed. They believe that Tribal members get treated unfairly, are railroaded due to organizational politics, and are the victims of undisguised racism. I have not technically been an employee at the casino or governance center for nearly a decade now, so in fairness don’t presently have the luxury of being able to talk as somebody “in the trenches” so to speak. Also in fairness, I have experienced, if only briefly, some of but not all of those things. To say they do not exist would be incorrect. The degree to which they do exist is harder to say as opinions vary.
Conversely I have witnessed and been privy to situations where Tribal member employees had no one to blame but themselves for their demise. The foremost reason our members separate employment with Spirit Mountain is absenteeism. That is, they are missing too much work. Such a fact is hard to distort. You either show up to work or not. Other reasons tend to be those transgressions for which anybody would be terminated.
Most of the time Council have been asked to intervene in employee matters we have been given a one-sided story, usually with key embellishments and omissions of fact. Those situations in particular frustrate me because when we have committed time to possibly helping one of our own an honest account of the situation is not much to ask. Furthermore, on some occasions the individuals who are supposedly out to get certain Tribal members are themselves Grand Ronde. SMC’s CEO and Human Resources Director were at one point both enrolled members, a fact frequently overlooked. I believe our Tribal members will have differences which impact their workplace interactions. I do not believe that many of our Tribal members would willingly participate in a conspiracy to keep fellow members from work just for the hell of it.
That really is why TERO gets increasingly attractive to me. I can speculate on all of this for days on end. I can meet with former employees (or secretly with present workers) who feel that our governance center and casino are hotbeds of racism, nepotism, and favoritism, run by mean-spirited managers who have it in for natives. I could also listen to those who think Grand Ronde Tribal members are lazy, devoid of ambition, and feel they have to work less because our ancestors suffered so. Sadly, such beliefs exist. Or I could start taking a look at a program which includes individuals whose job would be ensuring our members get a fair shake, that laws of Tribal preference are adhered to, and most importantly of all that equity prevails in every facet of Tribal employment.
Is TERO the answer to our problems? I can’t say, especially considering there isn’t really a consensus on what those problems are or whether they even exist. But some consideration is due, at the very least to know whether or not this is something that could benefit us and our members.