Although unemployment and poverty rates on Minnesota's Indian reservations dropped by a third during the 1990s, serious problems still persist on outstate reservations, according to the Census Bureau.
A large share of reservation residents are neither working nor looking for work and aren't counted among the unemployed, and many casino jobs are taken by non-Indians even though tribes practice Indian preference in hiring.
"We have made significant progress, but of course we have a lot more work to do," said Bobby Whitefeather, chairman of the Red Lake band of Chippewa.
On the reservations of Minnesota's seven Chippewa and four Sioux bands, the total unemployment rate dropped from 17 percent in 1990 to 11 percent in 2000. The percentage of reservation families living in poverty declined from 28 percent in 1989 to 19 percent in 1999.
Statewide, unemployment declined from 5 percent in 1990 to 4 percent in 2000 and the poverty rate dropped from 7 percent in 1989 to 5 percent in 1999.
Reservations closer to the Twin Cities enjoyed the most prosperity.
On the Shakopee Mdewakanton, Prairie Island Dakota and Lower Sioux reservations, median household incomes in 1999 exceeded the $47,100 statewide median income. In 1989, only the Shakopee Mdewakanton's median household income was higher than the state's.
The larger tribes in northern Minnesota don't fare as well. In Red Lake, about 300 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, the median household income was $22,800 in 1999. While far behind the state figure, it's 43 percent higher than the reservation's median income in 1989, when adjusted for inflation.
During the past decade, the Red Lake labor force -- those who are working or are looking for work -- increased by 52 percent. Whitefeather said the rise reflects members moving back to the reservation hoping to find work.
But jobs at the tribe's three small casinos barely kept pace with the population gains. "We've created more employment, although we have not created enough employment," Whitefeather said.
On all Minnesota reservations, 40 percent of residents 16 and older are outside the labor force, which complicates calculating unemployment.
Still, tribal officials cite the latest figures as proof that casinos have done more to improve living standards on reservations than decades of other economic development.
"I remember when we had only 100 employees working on the reservation," said Mary Durfee, A Fond du Lac member who was a tribal accountant for 16 years. "Today, I feel very proud of where we're at. I have a lot more confidence in our future."
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