1 in 4 Native Americans lives under the poverty level--it’s the worst poverty rates in the U.S. of any racial group. But one group is improving its economic outlook on the reservation: Native women. They’re taking managerial jobs and pursuing higher education more than ever before and are often the primary family breadwinners. In fact, at the Wind River Casino--the largest employer in Fremont County--the female workforce is now almost 60 percent.
When Delinda Burning Breast started with the Wind River Casino ten years ago, it wasn’t even a casino--it was just a bingo hall.
“I was just a regular floor worker,” Burning Breast says. “Just like when they sell sheets for bingo.”
But it didn’t take long before she moved up to a floor supervisor. And then, after the casino opened, she moved into the finance office. Along the way, she got pay raises and benefits. Which helped when her husband couldn’t find work and ended up as a stay-at-home dad. That is, until two months ago when he passed away.
“[It] was like kidney failure and liver failure,” she says.
Burning Breast says she’s been taking her husband’s death pretty hard. But even though she felt dazed at work and spent a lot of time worrying about her kids, she needed to keep working to pay her bills. So that’s when her managers stepped in.
“They helped me out because they had a 50-50 fundraiser and they helped me out with some money,” she says. “Made me cry! I just couldn’t believe it. Thanksgiving was coming up and they helped me with a turkey basket.”
And they moved her out of the finance office with its intense deadlines and into a less stressful position as a file clerk.
“We knew she needed help,” says Andrea Clifford, the casino’s assistant manager. She says supporting women like Burning Breast isn’t just charity on the part of the casino. The casino needs them. Women are often the most qualified with more education and work skills than men.
“The phenomenon that I’m seeing,” Clifford says, “the last ten to 15 years really seeing women go out and be the breadwinners. The males of the household tend to stay home and take care of the kids.”
But Clifford says casino work is tough for moms. They’re open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. That’s why the kind of support that Burning Breast received isn’t uncommon around here. Clifford says it’s good for business to make sure moms aren’t worrying about their kids and can focus on their jobs.
“We went out and visited daycare sites so we could see for ourselves,” Clifford says. “And even some of the daycares extended their hours and went to swing. Which was really good.”
It’s only one of many programs the casino offers to help women succeed as breadwinners. They offer household budget trainings, childcare at the local gym, health evaluations…
“For a casino, I think that’s very unique,” says Lorenda Sanchez who sits on the Native American Employment Training Council, a national group that advises the U-S Secretary of Labor. She says the Northern Arapaho is unusual in channeling casino profits into such programs. Many tribes, she says, are finding it harder to provide good support programs since the recession.
“Part of that’s attributed to the decline in federal government support for these programs whether its child care programs. Even training programs.”
But with more tribes developing economies around tribal-owned casinos, things are changing. Manager Andrea Clifford’s mother didn’t work outside the home, and neither did Delinda Burning Breast’s. But these days Burning Breast says most of the women she knows are working. Burning Breast says she has always known she wanted to work for her family.
“I always wanted nice things and stuff, but you know, my grandparents were struggling and all that,” she says. “And I was like, one of these days I’m going to try to do something.”
The Wind River Casino depends on women like Burning Breast to help it grow well into the future. As part of their five-year plan, the casino says they intend to go one step further and build an onsite childcare facility.