by Christine Trudeau
At 26, Megan Heller has not one, but two master’s degrees from Eastern Washington University. But after classes moved online early and a virtual graduation in the spring because of the pandemic, Heller had no luck finding a job.
“I probably applied for about fifty jobs,” Heller said. “I got a lot of ‘positions were canceled due to funding limits.’ Entry level jobs that I applied for said I didn’t have enough experience or I didn’t meet the qualifications or they just didn’t get back to me.”
Heller, a citizen of the Kalispel Tribe of Indians near Spokane, Washington, moved back in with her parents following graduation. She was able to save a little money living rent free and babysitting for family members as they went to work. Like many graduates this spring, Heller was left with very few options.
Donna Feir, a Research Fellow with the Center for Indian Country Development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, said that those entering into the labor force just out of school are doing so at a particularly bad time.
“Obviously unemployment rates rose dramatically in April after the onset of pandemic,” says Feir, “this is particularly challenging for Indigenous Americans where unemployment rates increase much more dramatically than any other demographic group.”
An August report by Feir found that despite a slight rebound to the employment rate since April, employment for Native Americans is still well behind that for the white workforce. Feir’s survey focuses on people over 25 years of age. She said through no fault of their own, young people having difficulty finding work might be affected throughout their careers.
“Unemployment rates generally rose very dramatically and we know if you are an individual who is entering the labor force in an economic downturn this can sometimes have a permanent impact on your wages and attachment to the labor force throughout your life course,” Feir said.
Across the country tribes and Native communities are pulling together,
accessing traditional family and community support to cope with the virus threat and the ongoing economic setbacks. Food donation and delivery drives, youth-led initiatives to provide masks, hand sanitizer, and information on social distancing and other preventative measures, and tribal officials closing reservation borders have all helped keep people alive and afloat.
Heller counts herself among those relying on that family support. So does Ashley Nicole Hamilton, who is also back at home after graduating from Harvard University in the spring. Unlike Heller, Hamilton, 22, had a fellowship lined up after receiving her bachelor’s degree in sociology. A citizen of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, Hamilton started in June as the Wilma Mankiller Fellow in Tribal Governance with the National Congress of American Indians.
“I recognize that I’m in a very unique situation to, one, get a job during a pandemic, but also be able to keep it and know that I’ll be able to have this job,” Hamilton said.
But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. When Harvard closed down in March, college officials gave students living on campus five days to vacate their dorms. With no financial help from the school and unable to get storage nearby, Hamilton said it made more sense to rent a truck and drive to to her job in Washington, D.C. At the time, she thought she’d be starting her job in person, but NCAI decided she should work remotely for the foreseeable future. She returned to South Sioux City, Neb. and says, in the months since, working from home has been good, allowing her to reconnect with family.
“I feel like I’ve healed in a way from the four years of being away,” said Hamilton. “Healing mentally, physically, and emotionally and learning more about myself. Like what situations I thrive in. What situations I don’t thrive in. Understanding that having my family, having a good community around is necessary. I’m not saying that at Harvard I didn’t have a great community of friends, I just think that the lifestyle of living in the dorms, not being able to cook my own food, not being connected to my food and to more of a home routine really affected me a lot. Being home has healed that in a way, and especially being close to my family.”
Hamilton also got a dog over the summer named Winnie, who has been a companion between work and occasionally grocery shopping.
“I think because Nebraska never really issued any sort of lockdown stay-at-home orders statewide, the pandemic has felt very consistent for me and in the sense that I’m still following the same guidelines that I was following in March,” Hamilton said.
Thankfully, Hamilton said, COVID-19 case numbers have remained relatively low for her tribe. When her fellowship finishes up in May, she has her heart set on studying Indian law, but remains cautious.
“I know with the pandemic anything can change in an instant, and so I want to start planning for options so I don’t end up in a position where I don’t have a plan or I don’t have a job or anything like that,” she said. “I just want to know what my options are, but I’m not really getting my hopes up on any of them because, you know, there’s a pandemic. So, I’m just ready for anything to change in an instant.”
Reconnecting with family and community is also a source of healing for Megan Heller.
“I’ve been trying to tell myself that it was an extended vacation, like a reset from school, because school was so stressful,” says Heller. “I would spend a lot of time outside, whether it’s just walking around or going for hikes in the nearby area.”
Washington was the first state hit hard by COVID-19. Gov. Jay Inslee enacted stay-at-home orders early. Heller credits the Kalispel Tribe for taking quick, providing antibody testing, giving out masks and other measures. When supplies were scarce, they organized donation drives to local food banks to help those in Spokane County, both tribal members and non-members alike.
“I think it’s been going relatively well, considering the situation,” Heller said. “My immediate family, we’ve all been safe as well as my extended family who are up here in Washington. Everybody’s been good about social distancing and wearing masks.”
Four months into her job hunt, fortunes finally turned. She started a new job as the Human Resources Compensation Specialist this week for her tribe. Though not her dream job yet, Heller says the position provides some financial security and a foot in the door. Down the line, she hopes the Kalispel Tribe opens a position for economic development and environmental protection when they are able to resume normal operations. Heller’s degrees are in public administration and urban and regional planning. Her thesis was on tribes planning for climate change. She is eager to put her passions to work and looks forward to the day she can help her tribe diversify economically and plan for a sustainable future. But for the moment she’s just glad to get back to work.
“I’m eager to get back to having a routine, letting go of the stress and worries I was having about not knowing what the future will hold, ” Heller said. “Not that I know now, but about the way that bills weren’t going to be paid, or what I was going to do if I couldn’t find a job for a long time. Now I can focus on my professional development… and my professional goals, where I want to go one day within the tribe and the kind of career path I want.”
This story is a collaboration between National Native News and the Solutions Journalism Network